I am not sure when my antipathy towards vacations began. I never liked summer vacations when I was a kid, a fact I kept to myself lest some vacation-worshipping bully decided to beat the crap out of me for being such a damn weirdo. Summer vacations meant the annual migration out of the mean streets of the city for the bucolic lanes of our happy little burg. In those days our happy little burg was much more bucolic than it is these days, when the prevailing mood is one of a small corner of the Rust Belt giving way to creeping suburbia. Back then you could still catch the occasional deer wandering up and down Main Street in the middle of the night like some nocturnal country cousin, stopping every so often to take a wide-eyed yokel’s look in some store window. That doesn’t happen much anymore. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I sat in the back seat of the car wishing I was dead; I was thinking about all the fun my friends were going to have pulling false alarms, shoplifting, and setting the winos in the park on fire, whereas I would spend my summer playing baseball, riding my bike, and being bored completely out of my mind. It was enough to make anyone wish that summer vacation only lasted a week and I often did. I even wished it upon a star once, just like in the Disney song, but the star must have been in his dressing room not taking calls or on strike for shorter light years or fighting with his agent because nothing ever came of the wish—summer was still two stultifying months long, whether I wanted it or not.
After I left school and entered the poison ivy clad halls of the civil service things were pretty much the same. I don’t see the point of taking a vacation when the whole point of having a civil service job is to do as little as possible most of the time for as long as possible; there does seem something counterintuitive, at least to me, about doing nothing on my own time. Some years I just skip vacation altogether, not, as I tell my colleagues, because I don’t have the money to go anywhere, but rather because I don’t want to be bothered thinking about vacationing; it’s just easier to go to work. This attitude invariably raises the hackles of the people I work with. They find the idea that anyone would willingly skip vacations more than a little disquieting and the annual end of the year recounting of just how much vacation time I am losing and my general indifference to the loss causes a general increase in hypertension, frustration, and personal aggravation amongst the confreres. They try to reason my dislike of vacations away, but, as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t see the point of going somewhere to do nothing when I can go to work and do nothing.
And so we come, at long last and after much literary preambling, to paraphrase Kerouac, to the point of the exercise, which is that for most of the past month and a half I have been on vacation whether I want to be or not, and, as you might imagine, I am definitely in the not category. The leadership of the egregious mold pit decided—I am not sure when, but then no one tells me anything—in its collective and near divine wisdom—yes, near divine, people; these clowns pay my salary and in return they expect a certain amount of doglike devotion from us drones—to renovate this mycological breeding pit from the floor on up. In order to implement this miraculous metamorphosis, the powers that be told the staff to get lost and stay lost until we got the call to come back. In a gaggle of carpenters, painters, carpet layers, and other technically competent people all rushing back and forth in the midst of their renovatory labors, the real employees are redundant, if not actually obstacles to that labor, and so we are now on a strange sort of vacation. The vacation does not count as a vacation in the strange calculus of our happy little burg’s civil service department, and yet here I am, on vacation and slowly going out of my mind.
The first few days were not so bad; they were sort of like a very long long weekend, but after the fourth or fifth day of this apparently endless weekend, I began to experience withdrawal symptoms. Since the beginning of this nightmare, I have gone to the great metropolis twice, there to document, in digital color and on black and white film, the strange customs of the indigenous inhabitants in their colorful native costumes, and I’ve driven up to the county seat on a similar mission, but left when I realized that most of the county seat’s inhabitants are lawyers and congenital idiots, who live near each other so that they can support each other’s campaigns for the county legislature, and therefore we should not, simply as a matter of good manners, exploit these poor wretches photographically. Trips to the great metropolis also give me an opportunity to indulge my love of dirty water dogs and huge pretzels with way too much salt on them, and to do so in a spirit of rebellion against the depredations of the nanny state. That’s right, Mr. Mayor, I read the obligatory health information on the hot dog stands, I can see how bad all of this stuff is for me, and guess what, I don’t give a rat’s ass! Take that, smart guy!
But man does not live by pretzels alone, and it is a good thing too, given the thirty or so bucks it takes to get from here to there, or else man would die of starvation or scurvy or something equally loathsome. So, with my finances barring a constant back and forth to Mencken’s second rate Babylon, I resolved to photograph nature in all of its splendor. This was vaulting ambition at its most revaulting, to be sure, especially since I do not vault nor do I have any ambition to do so; I was never a track and field kind of guy, and I don’t have much patience with nature, anyway. In my experience, nature is one of those phenomena that looks better on television than it does in real life, and is, therefore, something one should pass through as quickly as possible on one’s way to anyplace with central heating. But at the time I did not take counsel of my fears, however well thought out they were; instead, I invoked the words of that great American, Horace Greeley, to go west, young man, and grow up with the country.
With these stirring words in mind, I packed up my cameras and set forth for the wide open spaces of the American West. Just as an aside here, I did not grow up with the country and no, I am not young anymore—such, after all, is life—and after a right turn off the interstate, I wasn’t heading west anymore, either; I was heading north, north to Canada, north towards Alaska, the last frontier, north towards the Pole Star.
I did not reach Alaska, Canada, or the North Star, in that or any other order. I did reach, through traffic permutations too numerous and Byzantine to recount here, the Catskills, or a reasonably decent facsimile thereof. The Catskills are a mountain chain, for those of you who do not know, although I have heard that the Catskills are not really mountains at all, but rather a gigantic eroded plateau pretending to be a mountain chain in order to hide from an ex-wife and her process servers. Whatever the geological truth of the matter might be, the Catskills are sufficiently high to cause the empty Diet Pepsi bottles that carpet the back seat of my car to pop and crack like a nervous DWI suspect's knuckles as the dope sits pulling his fingers in the county jail’s drunk tank awaiting his turn before the judge.
I stopped at various places to admire the view and to listen to the truck drivers scream obscenities at me for stopping on such a narrow road. Ordinarily I would have agreed with them, but I was there to capture nature in the raw, which would make manipulating the images later on my computer that much easier, and so had no time for such petty concerns. Fortified by my belief in my photographic mission, I advanced to the guardrail, cameras around my neck, there to view the valley below from this commanding height and to document its beauty, and then promptly began to scream, sweat, feel my throat constrict as my gorge rose, and needed to perform an excretory function, all at the same time. Yes, there I stood, either on a mountain or the side of an incredibly eroded ancient plateau, take your pick, looking down on the verdant and sun-dappled valley below, with my morbid fear of heights more or less (more, actually) intact and completely oblivious to the geological category this particular Catskill belonged to. Now terrified out of my mind, I slunk away from the guardrail and crossed the road to get to the other side, there to relieve nature’s sudden summons and to wait for breakfast to return to my stomach.
Now completely aware that I WAS VERY HIGH UP, I made way down the mountain/plateau/whatever you want to call it as swiftly as the circumstances allowed, which, in retrospect, was not very swiftly at all. I did not want to destroy my brakes or pull the steering wheel off its column, despite the best efforts of that guy in the Wal-Mart truck to get me to do those things and hurry the hell up. Once I got down to the valley floor, I accommodated the lousy bum, after giving him the finger, but I must admit it was touch and go there for a while. Still, I was down at sea level where I belonged, needing gasoline in the quiet town of Kunisha Lake, a town whose existence I was completely unaware the day before. I was so unaware of the town’s existence that if you’d asked me about it the day before, I would have told you that Kanisha Lake was the name of a retro porn star. In Kunisha Lake, I am happy to report, people from the Indian subcontinent own all the gas stations, just as they do everywhere else in this our Great Republic, and that the Mexicans are perplexed most of the time; nothing in their much-thumbed copies of Ingles para dummies prepared them for the large numbers of signs in Yiddish.
So, having arrived in Kunisha Lake, I took in the local sights, or, to be truthful, the local sight: the eponymous lake. The town does, in fact, border a large body of fresh water completely surrounded by land. You have, I should point out here, just read everything of interest about Kunisha Lake. I stood on the shore of this not vast nor not terribly interesting body of water, my arms set akimbo, like mighty Caesar surveying Gaul, thrice divided into plain, sausage, and anchovy, and like mighty Caesar I proclaimed so that all of Rome could hear me, I came, I saw, I said what the hell am I doing here, for chrissakes, and promptly left. I am at home now, where I belong, wondering what am I going to do with myself until the mold pit reopens. The one thing I am sure of is this: Horace Greeley was a putz, no two ways about it. Go west, my ass, and tell Tchaikovsky the news. Vacations suck, no two ways about it, but you can go have one, if you want to. I’m not close-minded about other people’s enjoying them, you know.