As it turns out, jumping out of a plane seems a lot more insane the second time.
That was the thought going through my head on Sunday morning around 9:30 a.m. as our tiny, 12-person plane ascended into a cloudless blue sky, prepared to dump Arcati Crisis and some of our core of friends out of its side.
The first time skydiving was a purely a concept – mysterious in its execution. This time the open door of the plane winked at me conspiratorially as I sat two inches from its maw. I was going to exit that door into nothing.
Why was I doing this again?
In fact, skydiving was not the most insane aspect of our extreme band weekend. That title is easily awarded to our tubing experience.
Or, really, the experience of trying to depart our tubing experience without being murdered, dragged to death behind a car, dying of exposure, or starting a forest fire.
On Saturday I found myself in the midst of a huge group of friends, drifting down a lazy New Jersey river in the depths of pine barrens in deluxe innertubes complete with mesh bottoms, back-rests, cup-holders, and a case-and-a-half of beer towed behind us. (Note for the purposes of this story I was the designated tuber and witnessed this entire ordeal as the soberest member of the party.)
While highly entertaining to watch a friend try to paddle her tube around an obstructing log with an unlit cigarette in her mouth while not missing a sip of beer, the insane element came afterward.
We left a tiny, stick-shift, front-wheel drive Hundai at the end of the tubing route (after pushing it out of a sand trap in the parking lot), and piled into a van to reach our launch point a few miles away. After emerging from the river at the end of our journey, a team of four jumped into the Hundai to retrieve the van, with the intent of picking up the rest of us and tubing all over again in half an hour.
Having universally agreed that this approached Best Memorial Day Weekend Ever status, the rest of us waited patiently for the van, lounging in our bathing suits and docked tubes. Eventually we were dry, altogether sober, and warding off an increasing array of flesh-nibbling bugs.
Still, no van.
Here we began to ponder the barren, bumpy roads we took on the way to the launch point. They weren’t roads so much as gravelly paths too sandy to support trees. They definitely had an unnerving Blair Witch Project quality to them. At times they forked into two or three directions, uncharted by our various GPS devices. In the course of finding the launch we encountered a seemingly abandoned gun range, a pack of off-road bikers, and a terrifyingly persistent chain-saw-like noise.
It was then that we realized that we were stranded with no clothes, shoes, food, water, or cell phones. We had no concept of time and no way to communicate to the rest of our team.
Surely over an hour had gone by. Maybe two? Where the hell was the van? It would be a long, unhappy walk to the nearest sign of life without a vehicle to transport us.
Finally, we heard automotive noises approaching. Yet, what emerged from the pines was not the van, but the Hundai, rattling up the road to our position.
It expelled two sweaty, unhappy members of the foursome who clearly could benefit from an hour of tube-lounging, even if it involved being eaten alive by nibbling insects.
“We took a wrong turn on the way back, and the van is buried up to its axles in sand. We have to go back to dig it out.”
Not wanting to be stranded again, we collectively piled into the four-seat Hundai. Back into the Deliverance woods we drove, towards the launch point to try to replicate the wrong-turn our van took.
If the earlier ride in the van was bumpy, this was off-roading – not only less suspension to work with, but barreling forward at an inadvisable velocity because we were terrified that if we stopped in the sand our car would simply be swallowed up by it, never to be seen again.
It felt akin to the mining-cart ride Indiana Jones takes in The Temple of Doom. We had to roll up the windows so that trees couldn’t get in, and we wouldn’t fall out.
At one point an awful groaning noise began to trail us, and once we ascertained it wasn’t Jersey woods zombies we realized that the entire back bumper had fallen off the car and was being trailed by its tenuous connection to a single bolt. It took the entire team of us to re-attach it (with some non-driving members taking this opportunity to shotgun a beer with their free hands).
Bumper regained, we finally reached the launch point. The car idled at the top of the rise into the river while Gina called ahead to the van to try to ascertain which wrong turn we needed to take to find them.
While Gina tried to find a spot of reception between the trees, I walked around the car to the driver’s side window to have a sober-person to sober-person chat with our driver, Tatiana.
“It’s pretty sandy here.”
“Yeah, but we drove across it when we picked up the van, and we were fine.”
“I’m a little concerned that with the weight of all of us we might not make it across. Maybe we should push you through?”
She contemplated for a moment. “I think we should try it with everyone in the car. I don’t want to sacrifice momentum. If we get a little stuck, then we can push.”
Not for nothing, but Tatiana is a few months and a defense away from a PhD in physics.
I walked back around to the passenger side, and Gina and I reinstalled ourselves in about a fifth of the back seat. Did I mention that we were packed into the car like sardines? I got to learn a lot about my friends’ bodies. That’s all I’ll say about that.
“Ready, guys?” Tatiana announced from the driver’s seat.
We all braced for impact.
The car darted forward, accelerating as fast as a creaky Hundai with 150,000 miles and a newly reinstalled back bumper can accelerate.
The launch point whizzed by. Three, or maybe four yards of scenic pine trees whizzed by.
Then we came to a shuddering halt.
We piled out of the car, practically a circus clown act, to begin pushing. And push we did. We tried forward motion, we reversed and rocked – to no avail. Because, as we discovered in short order, not only were we stuck… not only were the front tires buried halfway up their rims… not only was the front axle sand-bound… but the entire under-carriage of the car was resting squarely on the sand. The tires couldn’t find purchase not only because of the sand, but because they weren’t supporting any of the weight of the car!
Now we were dry, half sober, and warding off an increasing array of flesh-nibbling bugs, still with no van, stranded farther into the woods than before, still with no clothes, shoes or food, only now with half a bottle of water and a pair of cell phones with intermittent signal.
At this point an earlier conversation about the order we’d be picked off in a survival movie began to seem more relevant.
What came next proved to me that we would have been in better shape on the Lost island than Jack and Kate (but maybe not as good as Locke). After briefly flirting with picking up the entire car, we manually (yes, BY HAND) dug out the entire undercarriage until the weight of the car was back on the tires. Then we braced a jack with massive tree limbs and jacked up each side of the car to place branches and pine cones under the tires in a cross-hatched track, leading upward towards ground level.
(The entire process was narrated by Gina in song: “We are digging our carrrrr out, we are going to get out, get of here before the pine barren serial killers pick us off one by onnnnnnnnnnne!”)
(It was a little more inspirational in the context of us all lying face down on the ground clawing sand out from under the car.)
(Maybe you had to be there.)
Our impromptu pine road to salvation completed, the team resumed pushing positions. We agreed we’d call one, two – begin to push – and on three our driver would shift from [manual transmission language that is greek to me], resulting in the most possible forward momentum.
We all heaved against the back of the car.
The motor gunned. The wheels spun.
The car did not move forward.
We continued to push, and the wheels continued to spin. After ten seconds of this, smoke began to emerge from the front of the car.
Not from the engine, or the tires. No. Our improvised tracks were beginning to catch fire from friction.
“Stop!” “Off the gas!” “Fire!”
Our driver eased off the gas, and the smoke began to dissipate. We eyed our tracks cautiously for sparks, but they seemed inert.
This development put a damper on our exit strategy. We didn’t remotely have the means to fight a fire (we had all already peed past the tree line, and even the less-than-sober team members acknowledged that pouring beer on it would be less than helpful), and none of us relished unleashing a potentially devastating New Jersey forest fire in our attempts to unstick ourselves from the sand.
By this time we had heard from our outpost at the van that they were expecting a tow truck, which could subsequently save us for double the price. Satisfied that we wouldn’t die of exposure and dehydration in the pine barrens, the majority of the pushing crew wandered away to jump in the river.
Our driver, no longer Tatiana, continued to rock the car back and forth on the pine tracks – gently, so as not to spark a flame, while Gina and I discussed how this would have made a great pilot episode for our Arcati Crisis YouTube show.
I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. In rocking the car, it seemed to have actually moved.
Tatiana confirmed my suspicion:”THE CAR JUST MOVED.”
Abandoned by our river-bathing friends, the pushing crew was down to Arcati Crisis plus special guest-pusher Tatiana. We assembled at the trunk of the car, heaving it forward. It moved! Almost an inch! We let our arms fall slack as it rocked backwards towards us, like a child on a swing. Then, forward again – heave!
On each forward heave the car crept fractionally forward, gaining more room to rock backwards on its return. On the sixth iteration, the wheels caught, and the car lurched up and out of its depression in the sand on our pine tracks, which were mercifully not smoldering.
Gina, Tatiana, and I – now covered head to toe in a paste of sand and pine needles and screaming maniacally at the top of our lungs – pursued the car out of the pit, still heaving forward with our entire bodies. First walking, then trotting, then jogging, until the car accelerated away from our grasping hands and onto the more solid, hard-packed sand on the other side of the launch point.
The remainder of the team, assuming that our screams were of terror because we had started a forest fire, came stumbling up the rise with water in cupped hands. They found the three of us, still screaming, jumping up and down, and high fiving each other repeatedly.
Grinning widely and variously celebrating with the final sips of our depleted beer, our team piled back into the car and took off at great speed towards the wrong turn that would lead to our similarly mired van.
As we sailed over the uneven, sandy ground, our heads buzzing from bumping against the ceiling, someone from the other side of the back seat began to sing.
“Buh ba duh-dah, buh buh buh.”
A second voice joined, “Buh ba duh-dah, buh ba DUH bah duh!”
Now the entire car was singing – at the top of our sand-filled lungs – John Williams’ theme to Indiana Jones.
“Buh ba duh-dah, buh bah BUH! Buh ba DAH-buh, ba-DAH-buh, ba duh-ba-dah-duh!”
Later that evening, all draped motionless across Gina’s living room set watching game one of the Stanley Cup while inhaling several pizzas, we agreed that even after only one day it had in fact been the Best Memorial Day Weekend Ever.
And that was before we jumped out of a plane.