I have never understood the penchant many Minnesotans have for late-winter vacations to palmy, balmy climes. You’ve spent three or four months taking crap from Mother Nature—the snow, the cold, the cracked skin, the parched sinuses, the nose-tip icicles, the salt stains on your outerwear, the keen biological craving for a better class of daylight—and now, with the finish line in view and the wind shoving at the back of your parka, you zip off to Cabo or Naples to wait out the endgame with a jewel-toned drink in your hand.
This is conduct unbecoming, if you ask me. Where’s your pride? Where’s your vaunted Midwestern proclivity for finishing what you’ve started? Think about it this way: If the Allied forces in Dubya Dubya Two had stormed the beaches at Normandy, scaled those Nazi-encrusted cliffs, and fought their way to the outskirts of Paris, right up to where they could count the rivets on the Eiffel Tower and smell the black-market butter in some collaborator’s croissants, and then decided to take some R&R instead of a triumphant tank ride down the Champs-Élysées, well, that would clearly be a bigger deal than you snagging a sweet time-share on South Padre. But I think you see my point.
Still, the heart wants what it wants, as do the numb toes and the freezer-burned brain, so if you choose to leave the hibernal ball game in the seventh inning to avoid getting stuck in traffic, I won’t try to stop you. I won’t have to. Chances are, the economic downturn (not to say plummet / freefall / long-descending-whistle-ending-in-a-splat) has already put the kibosh on your escapist schemes for this year. You’re faced with the prospect of an entire March spent at home. In like a lion, out like a lamb? It doesn’t matter, because you’re going to sit through every minute, including the part where the lions and lambs give way to fast-talking hamsters that try to sell you life insurance and screech owls that fly out of your television set with their talons full of PedEggs and ShamWows. You will observe these visitations from a perch high on your living-room wall, your fingers and toes dug deep into the Sheetrock. You will question your sanity. Some of us are used to that, though you may not be, yet. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see a slim brochure lying on the rug near the front door, as if it had just been slipped through the mail slot by a concerned leprechaun.
I am responsible for that brochure. Smack dab in the middle of the cover it says exactly what you need to hear: “Exotic Locale…Glorious Warmth…A Taste of Old-Fashioned Adventure.” Just below that, we close the sale: “$40 Dollars (Complete!).” Yes, I know it’s redundant to use both the dollar sign and the word dollars, but Ed insisted. And he was right. You’ll be on the horn to us before you get the gypsum dust out from under your fingernails.
Ed is an old high-school friend of mine, as well as my partner in Epiphanies Within Reason, our new stay-at-home travel business. (As freelance writing is no longer the Ponzi-esque road to riches it once was, I have had to diversify.) Ed is also the owner of the exotic locale mentioned in the brochure copy. It’s his basement, and before you start crying “Rip-off!”, let me just say this: You haven’t been there yet. When I clomp down those back stairs and duck my head beneath the warped beam that holds up Ed’s main-floor half-bath, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into the most thrillingly seedy bar in all of Polynesia. This is probably due to the vast scope of Ed’s tiki mug collection and the life-size photo of his first wife, Patsy, in a grass skirt, which Ed snapped one night in 1988, after a hula class she took at the public library. We’re planning to put a few hurricane lamps around the place, too, just as a finishing touch. You’re going to love it.
As awesome as the atmosphere is, it’s not the main draw. You’re coming for the restorative tropical warmth—thick yet weightless, a big, puffy, marrow-melting quilt of it—and you won’t be disappointed. Now, you may have been in a home sauna before: knotty pine boards; a dinky, low-output heating element; splinters in your nether regions. Don’t let that shade your expectations. Ed built his own, from top-of-the-line oriented strand board locked down with 12 coats of Fruehauf truck paint. He tore the heating elements out of three giant electric stoves he scavenged from a defunct orphanage in Milwaukee. Don’t let him catch you throwing water on the coils, please. For one thing, you could electrocute yourself, which we’re not insured for. For another, Ed likes a dry heat in his sauna. He’ll often use it as a food dehydrator as well as a relaxation and wellness center, and too much humidity is detrimental to the creation of a truly primo batch of fruit leather. If you’re into aromatherapy, have Ed slide a couple trays of orange slices into the sauna with you. And if you get too hot, by all means take a break. Step out and stand over by the washtubs for a few minutes, until you can remember your name again.
The taste of adventure is supplied by Ed’s brother-in-law, Phil, who serves as our towel boy. Whether it’s due to his single low-slung eyebrow or the spot of dried toothpaste that always seems to adhere to his chin, Phil has a vaguely dangerous look about him. Also, he never speaks, so you can pretend you’re in a foreign country. He’ll watch your clothes for you while you’re in the sauna. You might want to leave your watch at home.
After you’ve sweated yourself into a state of profound obliviousness, which can easily be confused with euphoria, I’ll run you back to your place in my secondhand Mazda hatchback. We wouldn’t want you driving in your limp-noodle condition. Don’t mind the infant car seat. I’d take it out, but it’s such a royal pain to get it back in again.
We just have to make one stop along the way. I’ll pull over in a wooded area and walk you into the trees, guiding you gently by the elbow. When we reach the spot I’ve chosen, I’ll stand just behind you and talk softly into your left ear. “I want you to listen,” I’ll say. “Listen and feel. Do you notice that there’s a softness in the air that wasn’t there in January or February? And did you sense in your feet that the snow doesn’t have much backbone anymore? Good. Very good. Now listen hard.” And listen you will, with the heat of Ed’s orange coils still pulsing in your brain. I’ll say, “Do you hear a trickling?” You’ll strain until—yes! There it is! You won’t be sure if it’s snow melting or sap running in the flesh of the dark trees or your own perspiration still making its way down your rib cage. But you’ll hear it.
“Is that—?” you’ll ask me.
“Yes,” I’ll say. “It’s spring. You made it.”
Lots of people cry at this point, or laugh hysterically. Whatever your personal reaction is, just go with it. But let’s get back to the car. A person could still catch pneumonia out here.
Contributing editor Jeff Johnson is going all the way to Paris for spring break this year.