Monday, November 28, 2005

There’s no business like snow business


Being dressed in sponsors clothing and having "antique jeeps" sure means you get noticed. I was conscious that we were always "on show". Even if we weren’t employees of our sponsors, the clothing and company logos on the Land Rovers meant we would be judged as if we were. For the most part, this was easy. People were just so interested and friendly.

For example, the seemingly routine matter of packing up each day: - TH would load our Land Rover with whatever we had taken out the night before. We had built a set of drawers into the back and, as space was tight, everything had its place. When we packed up in the motel’s car park the next morning, a man who was vacationing at the motel, came out to watch. He was fascinated with our storage system and how well we had utilised the space. He chatted to TH about the expedition. When I arrived with more belongings he asked if I was "the wife".
"That’s me", I said.
He replied that he was enjoying seeing my "clever" husband at work stowing things away, and how lucky TH was having a wife life me who was happy to join in on this great adventure. He was such a delight to talk to.

I returned to our unit with a big smile, to collect the last of our things. That done, I pulled the door shut and I looked over to F1 & F2’s unit to see if they were ready. We should have shared a motel unit, as motels were costly compared with the camping we had planned to do. But, when we had arrived the night before, F2 had insisted on separate arrangements. I was surprised at her sudden assertiveness after a day of being tearful and saying she couldn’t cope. At the time, though, I had just written it off as her needing some space after what was probably was quite a stressful day for her.

F2 was now standing in her unit’s doorway, unseen by me. You can read a person’s true feelings, if you observe them when they think no one is watching. She was frowning and her expression was as if she could smell something distasteful. But she was looking at something, not smelling. I followed her gaze. She was staring straight at TH. I stood frozen, not believing it, flicking my eyes from one back to the other. But, I was not mistaken.

The "film reels" in my mind suddenly flashed back over a number of incidents – the odd sarcastic remark directed by her at TH, her sharp reaction when he was trying to take photos the other morning, the occasionally audible sighs when he stopped to talk to people while on the expedition and, of course, last night’s determined refusal to share a motel unit.

Any joy I had felt in the day was instantly sucked out, to be replaced by rage. Attack of a loved one can have a galvanising effect. How dare she think she was superior? TH and I had done so much to make the expedition happen. It had taken years and years of blood, sweat and tears. Whereas she was new to the team and, as yet, unwilling or unable demonstrate that she could do anything useful.

I wanted to stride over there and slap that look of her surly face. Before I could move, a sharp pain in my palms snapped me out of it. I was still holding onto the unit’s door handle. During my fit of rage, my fingers had curled around it, and my nails had dug into my palms.

I realised I was being overly sensitive and emotional. Out-of-control emotions can be explosive at any time, but particularly on an expedition like ours. I had to get real. Just because F2 disliked TH, didn’t mean it was the end of the world. I had already accepted that she was well out of her comfort zone and that this would mean irrational behaviour or impaired judgement.

And, I also conceded that I couldn’t expect everyone to love TH like I did. While managing this new situation wasn’t going to be easy, at least I now knew where F2 stood on one matter. I ran over the options in my head - asking F1 for help was a waste of time. Previous experience had shown me that he didn’t notice the behaviour quirks or body language of others. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. He was just always focussed on whatever task he was doing.

I didn’t think I could tell TH what had happened, either, as I felt it would be too painful. I peered anxiously in his direction. TH has a talent for languages. Like most people with this gift, he also had sensitivity for social and cultural mores. He was still chatting to our friendly admirer and appeared oblivious to my little frozen moment of revelation.

So, I just decided that we would go on as before. Except, I wouldn’t accept any more sarcastic remarks about TH. Depending on F2’s reaction to this, I would be able to assess whether her likes and dislikes were going to cause serious problem. Then, I’d handle that situation when and if it arose.

We drove away from the coast, towards the Umpqua River Valley and Crater Lake National Park. Umpqua was the local Native American word for "full belly". The area was lushly wooded with a long gorge carved out by the river. This river rushed along in rapids or stopped to linger in cool green pools.

Little side roads occasionally joined the main winding road. One particular warning sign stated: "Trucks entering highway at 1200ft" and I immediately had the impression of lorries plummeting out of the sky, rather like the whale in "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy".

We stopped at the "Dry Creek Store" to buy some lunch provisions and hot water for our tea. The proprietors wanted to know all about us, and our "cute little jeeps". TH and I showed them over our Land Rover. They loved everything. We were given free boiling water for our morning tea cuppa, they topped up our thermos flasks with more water for later and also gave each Land Rover crew a calendar and postcard. I beamed a smile at F2, as if to say, "see what happens when you stop and talk to people".

A church group, on an outing to the snow at Crater Lake, had also stopped at the store. One of the men came over to introduce himself. Over morning tea, Howard and I shared stories of growing up, particularly after I had told him of the day trips I had enjoyed with my family, and church group, up Mt Egmont, in Taranaki (New Zealand).

As a small child we would chug up Mt Egmont (Taranaki) in my Dad’s old Ford van, usually with half the neighbourhood kids on board. The first sight of snow was eagerly awaited. We would then excitedly count the patches of snow until they became too numerous and they all linked up into a giant white carpet. In my hometown of New Plymouth, temperatures were too mild for snow at sea level. Driving up the mountain was the only time we could see this cold "white stuff". It never failed to thrill me.

My conversation with Howard was fresh in my mind when I later glimpsed the first patches of snow. The road was slowly climbing to an altitude of just over 7000-ft. And, yes, I counted the patches of snow and got ridiculously excited.

We drove on through the snow ploughed roads, with snowdrifts up to 15ft high on either side. The snowfall on Mt Egmont was never this heavy at road access level. Snowy firs and spruce seemed to grow straight out of the snow and the orange of the road marking poles made bright colour splashes amid the stark monochrome. Looking beyond these poles was like being on the set of "Dr Zhivago", the scenery of which had made a huge impact on me when I had seen the film in my mid teens.

My exuberance may have become a little overwhelming. F2 was very reluctant to have a team photo in the snow. However, I insisted that we needed images of the Land Rovers in exotic locations for our sponsors. Three of us agreed on a photo with just the vehicles standing nose to nose in the snow. In my jacket and gloves I felt like a traffic officer on duty, as I waved TH and F1 in the Land Rovers into position. As we finished the shoot I glanced about to find F2. She was standing some distance away and looking down at the ground. Her jacket hood was up, her arms folded across her chest, and she was kicking at the snow with her boot. Again, I flashed her my "pearly whites" and said, "Isn’t it great we can get such wonderful photos for our sponsors!" I was probably insufferable, but I wanted to get the message across that sponsorship (which in effect had provided her with a subsidised trip) came with obligations.

We drove on up to the crater lake at 7122 feet and stopped in the car park. I was very keen to see the lake, which was hidden by the rim of the crater. A viewing tunnel had been carved through the icy wall of the rim. I gently eased myself along it, as the ice had made the floor very slippery. The lake was misted over. I waited, pleading for wind. Suddenly, there was a quick gap in the mist and I was almost dazzled by the brilliant blue of the lake. It was fabulous.

© Eventful Woman, 2005
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Monday, November 21, 2005

Trouble with Gas

There were no further incidents as drove we south, skirting Mt Saint Helens on the way. We left Washington State behind as we scudded over a long bridge, with the muddy Columbia River beneath us, to arrive in Oregon. Instantly the highway signs changed from the shape of George Washington’s head, to a more routine shield shape.

The blue sky, spring day had deteriorated into drizzle. We made a stop in Astoria, a forlorn little town near the mouth of the Columbia River. Half the shops seemed to be shut. The few that were open had drab awnings, which drooped sadly in the rain. It was a holiday place, waiting for the summer.

When we shipped everything from New Zealand, we had to empty the gas out of our camping stoves. Our research had suggested that gas bottle fittings should be the same as ours in England, but might be different in USA. Now that we were officially on the road, and planning to do more camping, it was time to see if we could fill our gas bottles.

We found a camping store and plodded in out of the rain. The response was as damp as the town. The shop assistant shook his head as soon as he saw our gas bottles. The bottles looked different and he wasn’t going to be bothered looking at the fittings. We plodded back out and headed for the coast and, hopefully, some sunshine.

Highway 101 undulates its way down the Pacific edge of America. New Zealand is also a Pacific Ocean country, glistening like a pearl in the far south of the globe. It was such a thrill seeing the ocean again. The surf thundered in, just like on the rugged the west coast beaches at home.

We passed a roadway billboard with huge letters: "Why does President Clinton wear boxers shorts?" The answer was posted on another billboard about 100 metres further along the road: "To keep his ankles warm."

It was the 12th March 1998. During our entire expedition, and until we rolled back onto our driveway at home in February 1999, America’s attention seemed to be taken up with whether/or not this President had sex with "that woman". In Bulgaria, Iran, or India, or somewhere else equally exotic, we would tune our little car radio to "BBC World Service" or "Voice of America (VOA)". VOA, which is broadcast into every country except USA, usually had a stronger signal and so we were forced to listen to this more often. Almost without fail, the news would lead with yet more wearying details of the President’s sex life.

However, back then in March ’98, President Clinton and the American public would not have known he was in for a tumultuous year. As it was to turn out, I was in for a rocky road, too, although not for the same reasons.

We found a cheap motel in Rockaway Bay, which actually had a kitchen in it. Most motels in New Zealand have cooking facilities, but we found that these were usually sadly lacking in America. But, tonight we had what we wanted to cook our tucker.

We had our dinner table discussion on the need for F2 to become a navigator and a part of the team. She seemed quite apprehensive and I reassured her that I would train her to read maps. I gave her the option of doing something else, but it got back to the original problem we had when we had our planning meetings. She either didn’t have other skills we needed, or didn’t/wouldn’t volunteer to do anything else. So, for now it was co-navigating.

The rain had dispersed by morning, but gloom still pervaded the motel unit. F1 took me aside. He was worried about F2, and that she was unhappy about being asked to navigate. I sat down with them both and talked over the details again. F2 was close to tears. I showed her our path on the map for the day, which was straight line navigating down Highway 101. Finally, it was agreed that TH and I would start off in front for the first stretch, and then hand over the navigating at the morning tea stop.

We continued south down 101. Just before morning tea we drove over the 45 meridian line north. It was the northerly opposite to Invercargill, New Zealand, and seemed a good place to stop. While we were waiting for the tea to brew, I showed F2 our map route. She still looked uncomfortable, but I was determined that she take her turn. I knew that, if she grew to accept this responsibility now, then she would develop great skills for map reading in much harder conditions.

Without the chore of map reading, I could really enjoy the run. It was a beautiful, warm day and soon we had our jerseys off. The air was so still that, in the rockier places, the salt spray hung in the air, like an early morning mist. I loved the little bays, the fish shop signs advertising takeaway food like "Halibut & Chips" and I smirked at the "twee" names for the motels - "Silver Sands", "Golden Sands", "Whispering Sands". Even the churches got into the seaside mood, with one called "Our Lady of the Dunes".

At our lunch stop, we found another camping store. The assistant loved our Land Rovers and said he would try to fill our camping gas bottles. The gas hissed and swirled around him as he enthusiastically tried to force it through the fittings. I do confess to cowardly sheltering behind the Land Rover in case the gas bottle exploded.
Attracted by "our funny looking Jeeps" (and some woman huddled by them) an elderly man, who was a World War 2 veteran, approached me. He’d enjoyed some R&R down our way, from his war in the Pacific. He proudly proclaimed, "I’ve been to New Zealand and visited Bondi Beach". (Note for readers who are not from NZ or Australia – Bondi Beach is in Sydney, AUSTRALIA.) Despite that geographical error, he was a good story teller and he made up for the disappointment I felt when the gas assistant had to admit defeat.

F2 and I had a look at the map together over lunch. I traced out our route, marking off the place names and showed her where we would turn inland, and on what highway. She didn’t look very happy and again F1 interceded on her behalf. He said she was stressing out and couldn’t cope.

I was quite worried at this behaviour. The map reading was really very easy stuff at this point, especially as we were driving in a country with excellent road signs. If we were to become a successful team, I knew that F2 would need to develop well beyond this, or at least develop a willingness to try. I agreed to navigate for the rest of the day, but stipulated that F2 would have to take another turn the next day.

We found a motel for the night went to bed early. That night I dreamed I was still working for my ex-employer in New Zealand, and that they forced me to stay instead of leaving on the expedition. I awoke with a gasp. I remember staring around the unfamiliar room, totally bewildered in the darkness, and wondering if I had been shut up in prison.

© Eventful Woman, 2005
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Saturday, November 05, 2005

A fraction too much friction

I was rolling up my sleeping bag the next morning, when I heard F2 shouting, "F**K the sponsors!"

It was followed by something I couldn’t hear from TH,

F2 replied, "Well, you’re taking too f**king long"

I dived out of the cabin, "What’s going on?"

F2 was attempting to load up the Series 1 Land Rover while TH was trying to get his photo of Land Rovers with woodsy cabins. I could see that TH expected F2 to behave like me, and to know to just get out of the shot. F2 was screaming that she didn’t see why she should stop for anyone for anything. It was as if she thought her task was the only thing that mattered.

It had been a normal morning - waking up, breakfast and then packing the Land Rovers. As this would be a year-long expedition, we had agreed on the amount of time for our morning routines – enough to be efficient, but not too much that every day would become a grind. It seemed comfortable for everyone.

But, this was also sponsored expedition, which had magazine coverage as one of the pay-back methods to the sponsors. Therefore, it was essential to take photos that captured the Land Rovers (with the sponsors’ logos) in interest-generating locations and action shots. (And, of course, the photos had to be in focus, and with no distractions in the background). Amongst his many other expedition duties, this was TH's responsibility.
As a professional photographer he was quick and adept in his work. But, it needs a high attention to detail and, to the uninitiated, it can all take too much time.

All this should have amounted to no more than a slightly disgruntled discussion. But here was no minor spat. What had surprised me was the intensity of F2's rage. She seemed close to being out of control and boiling over into a full scale tantrum. This was a big deal to her.

I had expected some conflict amongst us, but thought this would be later on, in the "wilder" countries. I didn’t expect problems so quickly and while we were still in easy touring country. We had been on the road as a team for only TWO days. How did this happen and how did I miss the early warning signals?

It guess it goes back to when we started planning the expedition. The expedition had originally been just TH, our Series I friend, F1, and myself. Over the 5 years of planning, we have developed an easy relationship between ourselves. We each had a contribution to make and we respected what the others had to offer.

In the 18 months before we left New Zealand, F1 had met F2. She was keen to come along, and didn’t seem to want to interfere with the plans we had in place. But, she was a bit of an unknown quantity. She had sat in on all our later planning sessions, and heard what we had to do to make it happen – including delivering on the expectations of our sponsors. But, whenever I had asked for input or how she wanted to contribute, she had demurred. Over time, we weren’t able to define a clear role for her. She gave the impression that this was OK with her.

I see now that this had been our mistake. In a team, everyone needs to have a job/jobs to do. Otherwise they can feel left out and/or lack the understanding to value the overall contribution of other team members. I also should have realised that some people have smaller comfort zones and adjust more slowly to being outside of them, than others. We’re not all cut out to be adventurers. F2 appeared to be struggling with the day-to-day adjustment to life on the road and, probably, her fears for the unknown challenges ahead.

Hindsight is a great thing. But, I didn’t have it then. At that point, I was apalled by her behaviour and extremely annoyed. This expedition had been YEARS in the planning, with little or no input from her. In addition, TH and I had endured days of uncertainty clearing U.S. customs, acquiring petrol cans, and getting the Land Rover going, whereas she had only flown in after all this work had been done. Two days of quite pleasant motoring and she was yelling and swearing. Frankly, I was pissed-off at what I considered to be her over-reacting to a tiny matter of difference.

I snapped at both of them. I told F2 to chill-out and let TH get on with what had to be done. I also snarled at TH to hurry up. It was unfair on both on them. I should have had a good quiet talk with F2 and I should have let TH have the time he needed for the photo shoot. I depend on him for good photos to accompany my magazine articles. He always had to anticipate what I would eventually choose to emphasize in my articles and I would complain if I didn’t have the right accompanying photos. Looking back now, I realise how demanding I could be.

The mood for the rest of the packing-up time was tense between the three of us. F1 didn’t appear to notice. The relationship between TH and I was very frosty as we set off on the road. It took 100 metres (110 yards) and an irate motorist coming the other way, tooting angrily at us, before we realised we were driving on the wrong side. The bad feelings rumbling around my head had affected my judgement. I was also disturbed that the Series I team had simply trotted along behind us, and didn’t seem to realise either that we were all driving on the left (as we do in New Zealand) rather than the American right side.

I had a good think. We couldn’t continue like this. Another mistake like that could cost lives. We had to have all occupants in both Land Rovers alert and focussed. Not stressed out, but not just tagging along for the ride either.

I thought that F2 might cope better if she felt she was a greater part of the team. I decided to have an open discussion with everyone that night on what had happened that morning, and what could be done. Perhaps I could train her to be a navigator, as a starting point? That way, TH and I wouldn’t always have the somewhat onerous responsibility of being the lead vehicle.

My heart lifted at this possible solution. I also said I was sorry to TH that I had yelled at him. He is quick to forgive and I love him for that.

We settled into the new day and to enjoy our drive ahead. It was hard to be down when all of America wanted to wave, smile at, and enjoy our "antique jeeps".

© Eventful Woman, 2005
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