Walking the Thresholds: This one went to eleven.

18 June 2008

At more or less the last minute last week, I decided to attend Walking the Thresholds 0x0B at the Four Quarters Farm, just over the Pennsylvania border, in the lands I simultaneously love and fear because they're so far off the grid that you're fortunate to get three GPS satellites to lock on to. After co-ordinating with Hasufin, Mika, and Sarah for a bit it was decided that I'd head over to their place, leave the TARDIS behind to save on fuel costs, and ride up with them. Our colleague in arms and all things nerdcore Jason would be going on ahead due to his schedule, and we'd pitch camp together after arriving. Because I was traveling lightly for a camping trip, with only a trunkload of stuff, it really didn't take long to throw together three changes of clothes (you never know), some food, some equipment, and a few things to keep myself busy (because the Four Quarters Farm does not have a "no event horizons" rule due to its distance from civilization).

It took a few tries to get all of my gear loaded into Hasufin's car sufficiently so that Mika and I could crush ourselves into the empty space for the drive to Sarah's apartment, where we'd be splitting our personnel and equipment among the multiple cars and caravaning up to the campsite. In retrospect, I wish I'd taken the time to find my FRS radios so that we could keep in touch without having to rely on our cellular phones, but ultimately it didn't matter a great deal. Before actually heading out, Hasufin and I took off for the local Trader Joe's store to pick up a few last minute choice morsels of food (vis a vis, curried chicken, steak, and stuff for s'mores) and a bit of coffee to keep me going (because I was running on nearly 20 hours of uptime with practically no blood sugar), but returned in record time because he knows the back way into the shopping plaza, which is a much shorter trip during rush hour in northern Virginia. I'm also thankful that traffic on the Beltway thinned out sufficiently so that the drive to Sarah's (which is not too far short of Fort Meade and Baltimore) only took a little over an hour. Not bad for the DC metroplex, I think. However, this put our departure time closer to 1800 EST5EDT, which will become important later... during car-ride conversation on the way over, it was determined that we had yet more stops for supplies to make (most of them medical in nature), which took up yet more time. Backtracking to return to the Beltway took even more time... not that I'm complaining about how long the trip took, but a goodly amount of the night was spent in the car burning dead dinosaurs. If I didn't include these bits, my paragraphs would be a lot shorter, but now it's the four cups of coffee I had at breakfast talking.

Less caffeinated commentary after the cut. The four of us pulled over to catch a late dinner at Cracker Barrel because all of us were running on empty by that point and Sarah's car was having problems accelerating. Dinner wasn't terribly eventful, to be honest - we sat around eating dinner and drinking coffee (I've lost my taste for their grilled chicken, it's been disappointing the last few times I'd gotten it), and getting bemused looks from the other late-evening diners. One of the waitresses complimented me on my t-shirt and asked where she could get one. We nosed around in the country store at the front of the building a little and I picked up a small polished stone that wound up coming in handy later in the weekend. Hasufin and I nosed around inside the engine compartment of Sarah's car before leaving, but none of us were able to find the source of her problem... then again, I'm not a car jock, so chances are unless something exploded I probably wouldn't have been able to diagnose any problems anyway.

The remainder of our trip to the Four Quarters Farm was fairly uneventful up until 0000 EST5EDT Friday night (or is that Saturday morning? I can never tell...) when we finally got to the mountains by way of a sudden rain squall that skidded across southern Pennsylvania. The fog began to roll in, and both driving and navigation became difficult in the extreme because none of us could see useful landmarks or street signs, which are pretty dodgy that far out, anyway. Our little two-vehicle caravan got turned around, turned around again, and then pulled over to the side of a dirt road to figure out where we were and what we were going to do. As it turned out, Hasufin and I had done a decently good job of getting us this far, but Mika knew the rest of the way better (You are in a maze of twisty unpaved roads, all alike...) As I saw it, our options were pretty clear: Follow them to the Farm, check in if we could, wait until morning if we couldn't, and pitch camp. It didn't take us much longer to reach our destination, though the drive down the logging roads to the camp proper weren't the easiest thing to do in the rain and mud that late at night.

The first thing we noticed was that the tall grass of the campground was exceedingly wet, and thus very uncomfortable for walking. Hasufin and I switched out sneakers for boots as our first official act of unpacking. The second thing noticed was that the uncovered performance stage hadn't been claimed by anyone as temporary living space. Not being terribly hardcore about camping (pluswhich, pitching a tent on a slope makes sleeping highly uncomfortable) this relieved me greatly. The third thing we noticed were the occasional sounds of retching coming from the woods, farther down the hill, out past the pavilion, and echoing up the hill from the general direction of Camp Cambodia's stomping grounds.

This didn't bode well. At WtT, people generally don't drink until they either throw up or suffer alcohol poisoning. Weirdos though we be, we're also pretty responsible as a group. It was decided that we should make camp before exploring any further, on the theory that once unpacked we would be in a better position to render assistance should it be necessary. This is better known as the "Oops, the first aid kit is buried under all the sleeping bags" stratagem.

I'm unusually proud of my dome tent, which borrows heavily from the same basic structure as the ribs of a pushbutton umbrella, plus only having two major components makes setup easy. Consequently, we were able to get set up in less than a half hour. Jason somehow found us up by Hasufin's car as I plugged the inflater for my air mattress into an inverter, and thence into the running car to inflate. It was probably the characteristic sound of the built-in air pump running for ten seconds and then powering down because my (crappy, probably going to break down soon) inverter can't supply enough current to run it continually. Once we'd gotten settled in, it was decided that we should head down the hill toward the pavilion to see what was going on; on the way, we ran into yet another person noisily being ill at the base of a tree, which I'll admit gave me pause. As we later discovered, somewhen between Thursday night and Friday morning there was an outbreak of a stomach flu of some kind (possibly a norovirus judging by the symptoms and rapidity of transmission) which burned through the campsite like wildfire. We weren't able to pin down an exact vector of transmission (not everyone who got sick drank the same water, ate the same food, or used the kitchen), but in the final analysis it didn't much matter because it seemed to have run its course in about a day. Thankfully Orthaevelve (who happens to be an EMT) was on site and one other person also had EMT training in the past. I found out the next morning that one of the members of Camp Cambodia was distributing batches of oral rehydration solution to prevent the violent purges (coupled with the characteristically unstable weather of WtT) from causing dangerous dehydration.

By the close of the night (around 0300 EST5EDT or so) we found ourselves sitting under the pavilion talking science fiction, cracking wise, guessing who might have been sitting where around the tables by the swords left behind, and taking the odd nip of our liquor of choice before turning in for the night.

Saturday morning brought with it a distinct desire to nap for another half hour, making a fire in one of the steel fire rings (a reused automobile wheel, actually), Hasufin and Mika cooking breakfast over said campfire, and most of all taking a warm shower down at the stage showers at the bottom of the hill. The generator chugged along nicely, both heating water and providing power to the campsite when I poked my head into the kitchen at the bottom of the first hill. I ran into a couple of acquaintances eating a light breakfast while recovering from the flu the night before. Most everyone who was ill the night before was in varying states of recovery by this time - fragile, but able to keep food down and walk a bit. The exception was Malachi - Orthaevelve took care of him until they decided to leave on Saturday afternoon because he wasn't doing as well as he should have been. I hope he was strong enough to travel by that point...

Much of the day Saturday was spent sitting around the campfire cooking (there's something about slow cooking that you just don't get at home), wandering down to the swimming hole to cool off and dodge the humidity, or sitting around under the pavilion watching presentations by some of the other attendees. I'll admit, I didn't go to very many this year because most of them were held on Thursday, before I arrived. As it's wont to do during Thresholds, the afternoon was taken up with staying dry as it rained once again and leafing through the books brought by a few attendees. I recall a discussion with Kyrin at one point on Saturday afternoon about the elven equivalent of Valhalla (yes, yes -- way to geek up a camping trip), and in the end it was decided that it would have to involve a bottle of rum, having one's hair played with, a valkyrie who happened to specialize in Japanese martial arts (they tend to be polymaths, you see), and mud wrestling elven ladies of legal age battling for fun and not vengeance.

I suppose you had to be there; it's all in the delivery.

The presentation that I really wish I'd caught was Jarin's work reverse engineering the original Babalon matrix built by Rialian's brother, an unusual device that is reputed to be a power source of sorts. He'd figured out the basic principles and constructed three new variants using various materials and mechanisms, and set them up around one of the shrines deeper into the woods. Because I wasn't keeping track of time by this point I don't know exactly when I left to go hiking (it was shortly after the rain let up, that much I'm certain of) but I went in search of the cairn he'd mentioned. As I understand it, the fairy cairn had been reconstructed by Rialian, Silveraena, and a few other people earlier in the week because it had been badly abused in previous years (at one point, someone had taken a sword to the structure and damaged it severely, going so far as to leave said weapon stuck in the center) and needed an overhaul. They did a good job fixing everything, I have to say - the plants should take root soon due to the new soil brought in and all the rain lately at the farm. One of the matrices had been set up in the center of the cairn, which I found fitting. I have to admit, I didn't pay much attention to the second one, which was stationed at the end of the northbound path leading into the clearing. The southbound path, however, held the matrix that had been built out of synthetic quartz crystals and integrated circuitry.

Of course, I broke out my toolkit and pocket watch and started tinkering... one of these days, I'll have to write up my results in an article for Rending the Veil, possibly after I gather the components to build my own.

Dinner was had late on Saturday night, mostly because we'd all been too busy wandering around on our own (all in all, I'd gone hiking for about six hours, give or take a few), so it was well after dark by the time that Hasufin, Mika, and Sarah had gotten the fire burned down to the point that the chicken and steaks finally hit the grill. I don't know exactly when it was that Jade from New York found us - she couldn't find her sister and was going on a search through the dark to find her. While she took the upper hill, she said, could Hasufin and I check the swimming holes?

Sure. Why not. What could possibly go wrong?

We grabbed our flashlights, traipsed down the hill, and started following the path back into the woods in the general direction of the private campsites (which I'll admit I don't know a whole lot about, though they're not hidden in any way). Maybe it was the fact that the trail in question is farther down the hillside than everything else, maybe it was the aftermath of the rain earlier in the day, or maybe it's been wet enough at the farm lately, but the fog came up again. Visibility was cut to less than ten feet around us, and we had one hell of a time finding anything. It wasn't terribly difficult to stay on the trail because the edges are strongly delineated by so many people walking along it (it's more of a road than a hiking trail, truth be told) over the years, but we did manage to miss all of our landmarks. We never made it as far as Hemlock (swimming) Hole; in fact, we never even found the near swimming hole or the fairy cairn. After stumbling around for about half an hour, the decision was made to scrub the search and rescue mission and head back to the campsite, on the premise that Jade's sister probably found her way back, at the very least to the kitchen). It brought no small relief to see the shower stage, the lower trail that lead back to Camp Cambodia, and the upper trail that brought us back to the upper campsites as well as the kitchen (which is where the diesel generator happens to be intalled). Sasha was safe, sound, and reunited with her older sister. I made the executive decision to stop running around in the dark, in the fog, with absolutely no sense of direction (those of you who know us, you may remove your palms from your foreheads), sit at camp, roast marshmallows, and spend the evening not getting into trouble.

Mika, Sarah, Hasufin, Jason, Silveraena, and I spent the evening around the campfire roasting marshmallows, making s'mores (a first at WtT), and swapping "No shit, there I was" stories until late in the night. I think we finally turned in somewhen around 0300 EST5EDT, when eyes started to droop and discussion began to peter out. Also, having to drive home the next day made getting a decent amount of sleep seem like a good idea.

Sunday morning came around and we stumbled zombie-like from our tents into the sunlight, wincing as we did so. There wasn't enough left of the campfire from the night before so Hasufin set about starting a new one in the fire ring while the rest of us attempted to boot our brains into a state more conducive to consciousness. Because I'd planned on going swimming one last time before we left, I only dressed and then Sarah and I set about breaking down the campsite, packing everything up, and hauling it across the hilltop back to our waiting vehicles. Vehicles that had been sealed up for two days straight to keep them dry suddenly exhibited another problem: their insides were so hot that you couldn't so much as touch the seats for longer than a few seconds, let alone anything made of metal. The obvious solution was to roll the windows down and go about our business for a few hours, which we did. Hasufin and Jason started cranking out pancakes over the fire (lots and lots of pancakes, possibly as many as two dozen or so), in the hope that people wandering by would like a pancake to grab and go on their way either back to their car or back to their campsite. I don't think that we got rid of very many this way, even after mentioning to a few people at the lower campsite that we had more than we could comfortably eat on our own.

By this point the lion's share of our gear had been packed up and packed away, and all we had was the cooking equipment beneath a raised tarp to take care of. With time to kill and nothing much to do, the five of us wandered down to the lower campsite and thence to Hemlock Hole to get one last swim in for the weekend. It seemed that about a half-dozen other people had much the same idea, so the swimming hole saw quite a bit of activity in the hours leading up to everyone's return to a semblance of normal life. I seem to have gotten a mild sunburn from my hours out there (even around my hairline) and my arms are still sore from swimming, but on the whole I think it was worth it. All too soon, we said our goodbyes, headed back to our cars, and started the long haul back to Maryland to drop off Sarah and then to Virginia to go home. All of this by way of the Farm's front office (because we hadn't checked in, and because we wanted to pick up a few bottles of mead) and the local gas station to top off our fuel tanks and pick up munchies for the trip. All things considered, Hasufin and I didn't get home until 1900 EST5EDT on Sunday night, factoring in the occasional swap of equipment from car to car.

By the time I got home, Lyssa had dinner waiting for me (spaghetti with homemade sauce), and proposed that we head back to Rialian and Helen's that night to visit Silveraena, whom Lyssa wanted to see before she flew home later in the week. A not unreasonable request, I thought, so we fueled up the TARDIS and hit the highway once again... I think if you look closely you can still see the grain of the upholstery in the seat of my pants. We wound up spending the entire evening over there, discussing what happened at WtT, talking about what worked and what didn't, and catching up because all of us have been busy with our respective projects lately. I also spent a while working on Silveraena's shoulder, which somehow hadn't quite healed properly since she'd been injured some weeks ago. I think we finally got to bed around 0130 EST5EDT on Monday, which meant that both Lyssa and myself have been trying to catch up on our sleep ever since then.

On the whole, I'm pleased with how WtT turned out this year. Sure, we had an outbreak of people getting sick, but we also had not a few people pulling together to help everyone out. We had a couple of EMTs on hand and a few people who really should write up what they did for those of us who aren't of the medical persuasion (you know who you are) to keep in our bags of tricks.