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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

The locals, the bears, the bankruptcy

August 14, 2003|Chris Erskine

We're up in the mountains, finally, where it smells like Christmas and the dwellings are all coated in a gooey, butterscotch shellac. Sprawling log cabins, most of them. With trash compactors and $60 corkscrews in the kitchen. We're here a mere 10 minutes when the thought occurs to us: When did vacation cabins become better than our regular home?

"This is nice," says the boy as he drags his bag like a corpse into the cabin.

We love everything about this temporary place in the woods. The four bedrooms. The high ceilings. Two decks, one front, one back.

We love the heavy smell of bleach in the rental-cabin sheets. We love the special garbage containers out front, which we lock every night, for fear the bears will make dinner of our pizza crust and discarded ChapSticks. Our banana peels. The last few drops of bargain wine.

"White Zinfandel?" my wife asks when I return from the store.

"I thought you liked white Zinfandel," I say.

"Yeah, in 1982," she says.

The years, how they pass. At one time, every bar we entered, she'd shout, "white Zin, please," and a bartender would appear with 6 blushing ounces of wine in a soapy bar glass. Not once, as I recall, did she ever send it back.

Now, suddenly, white Zinfandel is no longer to her liking, even though it was on sale at the big supermarket in town, one of those great middle-of-nowhere groceries where Aisle One consists mainly of raft paddles and trout bait.

"WHITE ZINFANDEL," screamed the big sign near meats. "$8.99."

So it's not like it was cheap, this stuff. For $8.99, you get the entire bottle. Believe me, there were cheaper brands.

"$140.38," the cashier said after I emptied the basket of only a few items.

"Dollars?" I gulped.

"You a club card member?" she asked.

"Not lately," I said.

"That's OK," the cashier said. "I'll just swipe mine."

"Swipe" being the verb of the moment. We think these local folk are rubes, but they all seem apple-cheeked and never without a meal.

They line their pockets with our cash, which we earn at jobs they'd never stoop to do themselves. Television. Law. Medicine. Even journalism. Especially journalism.

No, they just wait here in these perfect mountains for us to waddle in each summer, our eyes and pockets bulging, ready to be plucked.

"This place, how much could it be?" someone asks one night as we sit around toasting the good life.

"Six or 700 grand," someone says.

"That's not bad," says the little girl.

"We should buy two," I say cheerily.

"You'd really move here?" a friend asks.

In a minute. We all would. Because here, at the very edge of civilization itself, is where the serious money is being made. And lost.

In our case, here's where it went.

Day One: For an enormous amount of cash, we rent a small raft to float down a perfect river, stocked by the state with overweight hicks, who remove their shirts and allow their bellies to flop onto the rental rafts like raw sirloin. Whap, whap, whap -- the same sound a beaver tail makes hitting the water. Whap, whap, whap. Does nature get any better than this? Still checking.

Day Two: For $700, we rent a ski boat for the day. No exaggeration, $700. Not including skis. Not including gas. No exaggeration.

"This is the best, Dad," the boy says as we glide across the finest lake you've ever seen.

"Glad you like it," I answer.

Tomorrow, I file for bankruptcy.

Day Three: I file for bankruptcy first thing, then make plans for dinner out, which if I understand the finer points of Chapter 11, should now be free. Turns out dinner is not free -- $400 for two families. For that, I get four scallops the size of my thumbnail and twice as tasty.

"This is the best, honey," my wife says, licking her pretty fingers.

"No, you're the best," I answer, licking her pretty spoon.

When she's not looking, I sneak half her halibut.

Day Four: With no money left, I tap into the emergency money I have hidden under the minivan's spare tire.

I can either take the 100 bucks to a casino in Reno and turn it into something substantial, or buy 11 bottles of white Zinfandel and spend the night yodeling at the bears as they ransack our car.

"Where's Dad going?" I hear one of the kids ask.

"Daddy's going to the bank," their mother says.

The one in Reno, of course. Open all night.

Next week: heading home.

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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