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Almost Back

So. I realized I left things kind of eliptical when I said that I’d had things stolen.  I’m not going to tell the whole story – I’ve got plans to write about it for an essay – but y’all deserve a little bit more.

So, the plan was to land in San Francisco, pick up the rental car and drive from there to Yosemite Park.  I’d rented a car for a week, I had two places to stay in (one towards the north end of the park, one towards the south) and I had use of the car for the week.  Everything all planned out, i’s dotted, t’s crossed.  I made my flight with time to spare, I made the connecting flight, and I even upgraded myself to first class on a whim and it was great.

And then halfway across the state to Yosemite, I stopped for a food break in a McDonald’s, spent 15 minutes eating a cheeseburger and got out to the car to discover that someone had broken the window and stolen both of my bags.  At that moment, the only things I had to my name were my wallet, my iPad, my hiking boots, my credit cards (although initially I didn’t know that, and it was a relief when I found that), a bunch of random electronics chargers, a rented car with a broken window and the clothes on my back.

Fortunately I got a bunch of help from very kind strangers – to a nigh-miraculous level – and even got some of my stuff back when a Good Samaritan saw one of my bags abandoned at the side of the road and turned it over to the police.  As luck would have it, that bag contained my house keys, passport, a couple clothing items and all of my books and travel journals. But ultimately I’ve had some things I need to replace – some specialized hiking clothes and gear, my laptop, and my camera.  I’m typing this on the replacement laptop – purchased at a discount thanks to a Groupon that A discovered for me when I got home – and I stumbled upon a used version of my original camera (which got discontinued by Canon) which seems to be working well.

While I’m saving most of the “rescue stories” for another time, I can tell you about three sets of couples that helped me out – my parents were the third people I called (after calling the police and rental car company), and gave me a whole hell of a lot of moral support after things went pear-shaped.  “It’s just things,” Dad kept reassuring me.  “We can help you with replacing it if you need it, but – it’s just things. You are okay.  You’re about to go to Yosemite, and it will be fine.”

My friends Colin and Niki were the second couple. I actually texted them while I was stuck on the phone with the rental car company, asking them to call my parents and give them a heads-up that I’d be calling with more details – Colin spoke with my father about five minutes before I did, telling them what I’d briefly texted him. But while Colin was on the phone with Dad, Niki was on line – researching camera rental shops for me near Yosemite. It turns out the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite has a small collection of cameras they rent to inconvenienced travelers like me, and so by the time I got off the phone with my parents, Colin and Niki were back in touch with me, sending me a link to the gallery desk with more details.  Niki had the same outlook as my father, as well – “people have been enjoying Yosemite for hundreds of years without cameras, anyway.”

But the third couple started as strangers. I met them two days later – after I’d had a full day to round up a replacement rental car and embark on the mother of all shopping sprees – and had driven into Yosemite Park to pick up the camera before stopping in Tuolomne Grove, a smaller grove of sequoias at the edge of the park.  It had a short, easy hike, partly on a disused auto path, circling past some especially stately trees; it also took you through a long-dead tree that had had a tunnel cut out of it for people to drive through.  I parked my car, and stepped out onto the path, brand-new daypack stiff with newness on my back.  I was ten minutes down the path, when a couple behind me – whom I’d heard speaking in French for a few minutes – stopped me.  “We were wondering,” they asked. “Some of the trees look burned…do you know if that was an accident, or did people start the fires?”

I actually knew about this. “A bit of both, actually,” I said, and explained how the park service used to stop forest fires in the park until they learned that occasional forest fires actually help the plants in the park.  They nodded, thoughtfully.  And then the guy – a big rugby-player build guy with a shaved head and a rock band t-shirt – grinned. “So we humans messed things up again.”

And that is how I met Julian and Jade. We fell into step together and kept talking, and within a couple minutes it was just generally understood that we were now a party of three.  They were from San Francisco, and had lived there 20 years; Julian worked as an EMT, and was an avid outdoors-extreme-sports kind of guy. As we walked, he regaled me with stories of snowboarding along peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were on the California/Nevada border – “It’s like, I turn one way and I’m in California! Turn another and I’m in Nevada! I can go back and forth!….”

Julian was basically an overgrown kid, stopping for pictures of every major sequoia we found – even going so far as to lie on the ground to get the best perspective. The path brought us to a couple of downed trees, and Julian bounded right up to them and stuck his head in any hollow spots he saw; that’s how he discovered that one tree had an entirely hollowed-out trunk, turning the whole thing into a sort of cave.  “Come on in!” he called to me and Jade, disappearing inside.  The pair of them crawled all the way through, but the pack on my back and 46-year-old knees made me turn back halfway.  I ran into another party of people just discovering the tunnel at the entrance, and Julian met them because he’d stopped to take another picture from inside.  We all met back up at the far end of the tree, chatting a bit with some folks from the other group, then we wished them all well.  When we were out of earshot, Julian turned to us with a grin and said “I just want to come back and spend all day hiding in there dressed in a bear costume.”

I didn’t tell them anything about my burglary – we were having too much fun, and it simply didn’t occur to me.  We said our goodbyes when we got back to the trailhead, and the pair sat for a break as I head to my car, eager to get out onto the road before nightfall.  When I got a closer look at my daypack that night, I saw that it had been well and truly broken in.  I was also pretty much done with fretting about the burglary for a while, too, and I was prepared to enjoy myself again.

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I AM NOT DEAD

So, uh. I was going to keep up with this blog last week (and it would have been great because I was in Yosemite National Park), but life intervened.

And by “life” I mean “some jackass smashing in the window of my rental car while I was parked outside a McDonald’s and stealing all my luggage”.

The story is still sort of unfolding. I am back safe in New York and the scheduled trip has ended, but there are some things that were found that I’m trying to recover and some things that are officially gone that I’m still replacing and in conclusion may the people who stole my stuff eat a bag of poo.

More later.

August Break 28 – I Am…

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Sometime yesterday, I dragged a carryon bag out of my closet and started packing a few things for an upcoming weeklong trip to Yosemite National Park.  I plan on doing a fair bit of hiking, so I then went to an outdoors shop for a couple extra pairs of hiking socks, and this morning I packed in earnest; making sure I had enough socks and underwear, decanting my shower gel and lotion into TSA-approved bottles, paring the wardrobe down to a few pieces so I could mix-and-match for outfits and travel light, making sure that my tickets would be easily-reached in an outside pocket of my suitcase. I’ve even set out what I’ll wear on the plane, so I can dress quickly when I wake at an ungodly early hour that morning to make my flight.  The clothes I’ve chosen are now sitting on top of my suitcase, which has been tucked into a corner of my room, waiting.

The trip to Yosemite isn’t for another two weeks.

For nearly as long as I can remember, the idea of going somewhere new has always thrilled me. Even when I was very, very young. One afternoon when I was about three, the teachers at my preschool read us all a book called Henry the Explorer, the tale of a little boy who sets out to “explore” new terrain in his neighborhood after reading about pioneers. Armed with a flashlight, a series of toy flags – so he can “claim” the things he finds – and a peanut butter sandwich, he and his Scottish terrier wander through the farm near his house, a forest, and even venture into a cave, where he narrowly escapes from something that might possibly be a bear before returning home safely (albeit late to dinner).  Afterward, the teachers helped us kids all make our own little flags, and then set up a plastic crawl tunnel in one of the playrooms so we could all pretend to be crawling through a cave, just like Henry. But either the teachers were short-staffed that day, or there were just too many of us kids, because at one point I “explored” my way clear out of the tunnel, across the room to the door, and out into the hallway.

I don’t even think I was expecting to get out there, but I only hesitated a second before realizing that now I could really explore, and I set out to see what lay behind a doorway at the end of the hallway just past the bathrooms – something I was always curious about.  I managed to get halfway up the stairs to the church offices one flight above us before a secretary from the church caught me and brought me back. The teachers gently explained to me that this was only meant to be pretend exploring, and I had to stay in the playroom.  And so I rejoined the line of kids waiting for another turn through the crawl tunnel. I distinctly remember thinking during my second crawl through the tunnel that compared to real exploring, what we were doing was actually pretty boring.

My adult life, unfortunately, has not given me much chance for exploring. I did what I could during my 20s, but then a career in theater during my 30s kept me tied to home, where I always had one rehearsal or another to go to. And the budget of a theater professional also didn’t allow for much anyway, even when I did have the time.

One of the many turning points that lead me to retire from theater came in 2007, when my family were all discussing our various vacation plans – my parents were excitedly planning a trip to Rome, while my brother and sister in law were headed for the Cook Islands. Meanwhile, the only vacation I was taking was a long weekend in Chicago. Not to disparage Chicago, or that trip itself – I had a great time. But I suddenly felt the way I did as a child when I’d gotten that glimpse of that huge world outside, and then had someone or something pull me back to a much smaller and more confined space, and had someone tell me “no, this is as far as you can go.”

I think realizing that I felt that way is what made me start to fall out of love with theater – a love affair that had been going on for almost 30 years by that point, had made me sacrifice four years of time and a huge amount of money in student debt, and had given me the most professional success I’ve had in my life. I felt I belonged in theater – I still do – but I realized that there was an older, deeper place where I belonged, and an older and deeper self I had to get back to.

I am a traveler.

August Break 19 – Hands (On The Wheel)

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As excuses for road trips go, “my roommate needs dental work” is probably an unusual one. But poor A had been suffering after breaking a tooth, and then having questionable treatment from a local dentist; he’d seemed fine, but her tooth was still hurting pretty bad and she was fearing he’d not done as good a job as she’d hoped. But one of my high school friends is now a dentist and offered to have a look – if, that is, we could get A to his practice in Pennsylvania.

I was also able to borrow my friends’ car – Colin and Niki actually use me as their “car babysitter” when they’re out of town, which just means that I make sure that their minivan, affectionally nicknamed “The TARDIS”, is parked properly at all times. They’ve encouraged me to use it each time as well, instead of just moving it on streetsweeping days and letting it sit otherwise.  So they were more than willing to let us borrow it for a day trip.

We got to the office mid-morning and A got in pretty quickly – but she was facing some serious work, so rather than sit in the waiting room, I drove about ten minutes up the road to where I’d seen Valley Forge National Park was close by.  A road trip’s got to have some sightseeing, right?

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Now, I’d known the basics about Valley Forge from history class – it was a winter encampment during the Revolutionary War, and it was a rough winter and a lot of soldiers suffered in the cold.  And the visitors center backed that all up, with a number of displays on “camp life” and “soldiers’ belongings” and lots of displays about Washington himself.  But I’d thought the park was much smaller, and limited to the couple acres or so around the visitor’s center I was at.  I asked the ranger at the visitors’ center what I should see; “I only have about an hour or so to spend, what would you suggest?”

“Oh, Washington’s Headquarters, definitely,” he said.  “It’s here on the map – you have a map, yes?”

“Oh yeah.”

“And you’re parked here in the visitor’s center lot?  So then you drive back out by the – ”

“Wait, drive?”  I stopped him.  “It’s just here on the map, I was just going to walk.”

“…Well, you could walk there, sure, but…it’d take you about three hours.”  He pointed out the distance marker on the map.

Oh.  It was about five miles distant.

So I drove over to Washington’s Headquarters.

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The headquarters themselves were about an acre of land, with Washington’s house tucked into one corner along with an iron forge and a series of guard bunkers close by.

IMG_2151The park volunteer – who jumped up and launched into a memorized lecture about the place any time anyone came in – pointed out that just about every part of the house was original, and clarified that it wasn’t just Washington who lived in it, but also his aides-de-camp, sometimes Martha, and “some servants and slaves” – about twenty people on the whole, packed into a little three-bedroom house with an attic.

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The downstairs rooms were also given over to offices – Washington’s own office in the rear, and his aides-de-camp’s office in the front.

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Something the visitors’ center and the volunteer both pointed out: the soldiers in Valley Forge didn’t just sit around being cold.  Washington had used the winter to sort of give the entire Continental Army a makeover. Before the winter, each states’ regiment had been using their own techniques and their own battle planning, and was responsible for their own training.  Which left things a fairly disorganized mess.  So Washington used the winter to come up with a unified plan for training, arming, and supplying the entire army as a single cohesive force.  “Which required a lot of paperwork,” the volunteer pointed out at Washington’s House, “so that’s what his aides-de-camp were doing the whole time, was recopying Washington’s orders over and over.” I had to chuckle a bit when the volunteer name-dropped Alexander Hamilton a couple times during his lecture – “Yep, he knows what sells.”

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And the whole thing had a comparatively tiny kitchen.

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A short walk away were the cabins where Washington’s security guard were bunked.  These were much more spartan single-room shacks; one of them had two triple-bunk beds in it, meaning that six men lived in a space the size of my living room.

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But there were some bunkers that were two-man cabins, and that seemed a bit more cozy rather than cramped.

It was already mid-afternoon when I’d finished exploring the cabins, so I gave up on the rest of Valley Forge and returned to be ready to collect A when she was done

Home Cooking

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I ate really well in Paris.  I tried to focus on traditional food – even though I was in a neighborhood where I could get Thai, falafel, burgers, pizza, Chinese takeout, and Indian takeout, I steered clear of anything I could easily get in my own ‘hood; instead, I ate things like veal stew and quiche and a tuna salad on fresh greens and croissants and pastries and mackerel and vichyssoise and clafoutis; I made ratatouille from scratch, breakfasted on tartine au beurre et fruits et yaourt and once ate something in a salon du the called “tarte au choco crumble” which was like if chocolate mousse and Mississippi Mud Pie had sex directly on your tongue.

We’ve had a heat wave this weekend, and I spent the better part of the time stocking the fridge with cold soups and salads – partly to get on top of a backlog of produce, and partly so that I would have something to eat already in the fridge that would be healthy and fresh and cold.  Many of the things I made had a bit of a French accent as well, inspired by a lunch I had on an especially steamy Paris day when I discovered a little place that sold nothing but cold soups; you got a bowl of your choice of soup, a roll, and your choice of a side of salad, cake, or a little cheese plate.  I kind of did that idea for lunch today, grabbing a soup and a salad and huddling in front of the air conditioner to eat.

Then late in the afternoon, I got a craving – an overpowering, obsessive, get-out-and-get-this-NOW  craving – for pizza.  I got dressed and shuffled to the nearest pizza place – a spot by the Navy Yard with lovely pies and a brick pizza oven.  I studied the menu outside, trying to make up my mind whether I was hungry enough for one of their small pies, and then realized I wasn’t craving “pizza” in general.

What I wanted was a slice. Greasy, cheap, from a hole in the wall where there’s boxes piled up in the corner and you eat off a plastic tray on a Formica table.

For the past four days I’ve been feeling a little unsettled; I’d been chalking it up to jet lag or missing Paris.  After one plain and one Pepperoni slice and a can of Coke, though, I’m home.

Carpe Gaudium

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So I kind of have a good excuse for why I haven’t posted in a couple weeks – I was in Paris.

This was the second time I’d been ever, and also was the second time this year.  The first time was over New Years’, and fell so much in love with it that when my initial plans for July fell through and I was trying to think “where to”, I knew instantly where.  I didn’t post in here – but over on Facebook there are gushing posts about chocolate tarts and black currant sorbet and watching the Bastille Day fireworks from my window and exploring Versailles and Monet’s garden and wandering in a sun-dappled park and buying way too much at a cooking shop and nearly eating fish roe because of a translation mishap and bursting into song whenever I saw reference to the Marquis du Lafayette.

On my last afternoon, I went to a little cafe alongside the Place des Vosges and just had a dish of ice cream while I sat and people watched.  They brought it to me with a small wrapped cookie alongside.  I ate the ice cream, but – as is my habit – I put the cookie in my purse, to save for later.  I also went on a pilgrimage to the chocolatier Jacques Genin, where I bought one of their smallest boxes – it only held nine bonbons – and painstakingly selected my choices, the clerk forgiving my faltering French and carefully picking up “une des fraise….non, deux  des fraise….et deux de la menthe….” in her white-gloved hands and placing them in the box.  I also asked for four different pate de fruits which she carefully nudged into a small plastic bag.  They tucked everything into a small thermal bag to protect it all from the heat, because I had a half-hour walk back to my AirBnB; but even though they warned me it wouldn’t last much longer than that, I still decided to save it for later.

On the plane ride home, I finally dug into my bag to retrieve the chocolates and the cookie.  But those nine chocolates, nestled so carefully together, had started to melt.  The pate de fruits were all sticking together.  And as for the cookie – it had been a flaky thing, and had gotten so beat up in my bag that it was nothing more than a pile of flaky crumbs.

I realized I have a very, very bad habit of denying myself pleasure.  I don’t think that’s what I’m doing – I save cookies and delay gratification because I think I’m being virtuous and careful; I may not have this option later, so let me save it for leaner times.  But somehow I never get around to actually enjoying those delights until the cookie is broken, the chocolate is melted, or the chance has run out.  Or I get something and then never use it, and it sits there, waiting for me to actually let myself enjoy it.

Part of this, I’m sure, is a fear of scarcity. I do get to travel, but that’s only because the rest of the time I live super-frugal; making all my own lunches, counting change to make the subway, calculating the exact best date that I can send my bills in the mail so that they won’t beat my paychecks.  I can’t be as free-and-easy with my money as I’d like, and that means that the splurges have to be now and then.  I can’t be frivolous, I think; these are investments, and I have to make them last.

But that doesn’t explain why I’m also that way with the things I get for free.  Those cookies were free alongside the ice cream.  I could have had them right away.  I even already had more cookies at my flat that I was already going to have to bring home on the plane.  And yet I put them in my purse, not letting myself enjoy them right away.

I thought about that a lot.

I met someone in Paris my first visit and saw him again this time.  My…friend (sure, yeah, let’s call him that) is an almost stereotypical French romantic – rhapsodizing over wine, swooning over the ratatouille we had for our lunch, gushing about les fleurs in Monet’s garden and exhibits in les musees.  At some point I joked about how much money I’d been spending on shopping, and on how indulgent I’d been at some of the patisseries; and he just chuckled.  “But this is Paris,” he said. “You have to indulge!”  Let yourself actually enjoy pleasure, is his watchword; spend money on yourself.  Be good to yourself.

He showed me a recent indulgence he’d given himself – he’d selected five or six pictures he liked, famous photos or paintings, and copied the images from online and brought them to a print shop to have high-quality prints made, simply so he could hang them up in his apartment.  He showed me each one, explaining why he liked each one and pointing out that he really wanted good quality prints and that this was the only way to get them.  “I could not get them framed,” he added with a shrug, “so I will just make the frames.”  I nodded – thinking that I was going to be doing something similar, but realizing that I was just going to hit up the color printer at work.  Investing in good prints, I had to admit, would make a difference.

Letting myself enjoy pleasure will make a difference.  I have to be frugal in my daily life, but there’s a difference between being frugal and feeling deprived.  I have things I can use and enjoy.  I get opportunities for pleasure all the time.  But I don’t use them.  If I used them, perhaps I would feel the sting of frugality less – and perhaps I would enjoy myself more.  Because even though I squirrel away moments of joy, afraid that another one won’t come soon, they always do.  The only way I miss out on moments of pleasure is by not experiencing them.

Everyone knows what “Carpe Diem” means; sieze the day, don’t let the opportunity slip by.  But perhaps I need to focus on something a bit different; what I need to work on, I think, is siezing the joy.

 

What I Did On My First Camping Trip (By Kim W, age 46)

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Okay, this wasn’t my first camping trip.  My family took a trip back when I was fourteen; we borrowed a neighbor’s tent and joined one of my sets of aunt/uncle/cousins for a week in Maine, where we got rained on and my uncle rallied us to a mountain hike that was well beyond my own family’s physical ability; he lured us up the mountain by promising we’d see a magnificent waterfall, one which he’d seen himself in early May, but forgot that it was now the middle of July and that the water had dried down to what my father described as “an old man peeing off a rock”.  I was all for another attempt, but the rest of the family, not so much (at least, not at first; my brother later went on to backpack around the world twice in his 20s).

Everyone told me that I could go on a solo trip, but I’ve always wanted a practice run – I was very aware that I was really more or less along for the ride on my first trip.  My aunt and uncle did most of the cooking and my parents set up the tent while my cousins and brother and I just poked around at the edge of the lake.  I wanted at least one supervised hands-on trip before trying to go on my own, and have been quietly hinting to people for years that I’d like to try (albeit, possibly too quietly because no one realized I was asking).  Then a couple years ago I met J in a kayak club, and after a couple years of comparing notes on boats and hikes and other adventures, I bit the bullet and asked him if he would be my camping Yoda.

And thus this weekend we jumped into a rented car with two tents, a cooler, and some clandestine alcohol (shh) and head north, to a campground in the Catskills.  J tried to always explain why he was doing what he was doing, showing me the tips and tricks he’d learned from a lot of camping – everything from how he picked the tent site (“someplace flat not close to a tree”) to how to carry dish soap (in a bottle with an eyedropper), and even mentioned some of the differences between car camping, like we were doing, and backcountry camping, which he prefers. And I did learn a lot, including:

  • That even when you purchase firewood from a general store it may be a little too wet.
  • That lentil stew cooked over an open flame cooks way faster than you think – but also tastes way better than you’d imagine.
  • That roasting corn over an open flame takes longer than you’d think.
  • What tequila does when you splash a tiny bit onto a campfire.
  •  How to drive a tent stake into the ground when the ground is about 98% solid rock and 1.5% cement.
  • That if you were an idiot and forgot to bring cooking oil to saute the onion, a little of the liquid from a can of chick peas actually works as a substitute.
  • That the soot from the bottom of your cooking pans will get everywhere.
  • That some people will come all the way out to a campground in the middle of a beautiful site and then never do anything but sit in a circle around the fire pit and talk and drink.
  • That if you need to get up  and yell at those same neighbors because they have moved on from just talking to blasting Country Grammar at midnight, you should bring a flashlight.
  • That if you need to get up and pee at 4 am, you actually don’t need a flashlight.
  • That you can make serviceable coffee with a tea ball strainer, especially if you’re tired enough after having yelled at your camping neighbors for blasting Country Grammar at midnight.
  • That sometimes when the hiking trail guide describes a trip as “easy” with a “gentle slope”, they may be lying to encourage you, and you actually may be doing some ambitious climbing.
  • That you will encounter icky things in the bathrooms, like spiders and waterbugs, and you simply won’t care.
  • That lengthy conversations around a campfire are mesmerizing, and the fire can lull you into relaxing and talking more freely than usual.
  • That if your friend J surprises you with a trip to go zip lining, you should say yes because it’s awesome.
  • That chewing gum can help when a sinus headache has jumped out and attacked you at the very beginning of the zip line course.
  • That I’m better at zip lining than I thought.
  • That if you don’t actually have ice on hand for your feet, dunking your foot in the lake works just as well.  Especially if you get to watch a man teach his three-year-old daughter how to swim as you do.
  • That mist rising off a Catskills lake at dusk is incredibly beautiful.
  • That it’s possible to forget that waterfalls dry up in summer, and so the falls you’ve just hiked to today are a lot like the “old man peeing off a rock” you saw when you were fourteen.
  • That the view from the next peak makes up for that.
  • That if you need a break mid-hike, it is perfectly fine to sit on a flat rock next to a tiny pond and look for frogs.
  • That rain on your tent roof can lull you to sleep.
  • That it is possible to strike two tents and pack up an entire two-person campsite in only five minutes when you wake up to discover one of your tents is leaking.
  • That diner waitresses are very tolerant of muddy and faintly odoriferous customers at 7:30 am.
  • That apartment stairwell railings are perfect places to hang muddy tents that need to dry out.

I think I’m ready for more.