At Witz End
By Eugenia Moskowitz
So we took the kids to TreEscape — one of those cleverly-named treetop ropes courses where you pay to suspend yourself by a tiny clip thirty feet above the ground so you can balance on skimpy pieces of dangerously unstable wood, fall off, be caught by your safety harness before plunging to your death, and live to do it again and again.
Caveat: This type of thing is supposed to be fun. You test your ingenuity in physical problem-solving, all while managing your natural fear of danger. It’s supposed to be thrilling.
For such a place, I thought, they could have managed better signage. It was part of the Mountain Creek complex — once the old Great Gorge ski lodge, now apparently a golf course — in Vernon, New Jersey, and after a winding ride through the onion fields of Pine Island (spoiler alert: the dirt really is black), we crossed into Jersey and began looking for some direction arrows. When the GPS blurted out “You have arrived,” my youngest pointed to a very small green sign almost completely covered by overgrown vines and foliage.
We parked in a lot beside the old $60 million Playboy Club resort hotel, apparently last used in 1972: four stories tall, brown color scheme made even more dismal from decades of disuse, with mold-clouded windows backed by mustard-colored drapes. And those red Xes that mark something either for demolition or deep-sea diving. The balconies reminded me of that terrorist image from the Munich Olympics. All this place needed was men with pillowcases over their heads. On the ground, the parking lot was a cracked and weedy urban wasteland from a post-apocalyptic zombie nightmare film where no human has tread (or landscaped) in decades.
We signed our life away at an old restaurant area — now the golf pro-shop — then waited for a shuttle bus up to the ropes course. Although “shuttle bus” is putting it kindly, conjuring up images of how you get from extended parking at Newark to the airport, with a licensed driver and some sort of method to the madness. No. This was a white van with too many rows of seats to be legal, no seat belts, and a single sliding door as the only egress in case it should suddenly burst into flames. And a driver who was a dead ringer for Clarence, the good-natured but soused Irish angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Don’t let the kids sit by the door,” he mumbled, shifting into drive. “It don’t close.”
We rattled and bumped our way up the rutted dirt road, skirting the golf course until for some reason Clarence decided to stop, get out, and shut the door. That moment coincided with a tight squeeze around a golf cart blocking the path. The golf guy, taking swings on a greenway, glared at our van. Clarence glared at the golf guy. Clearly there was antagonism between the two establishments that shared the same road, with a bad enough history to make it safer to keep the door closed. (Although “closed” implies the door actually clicked shut, which it didn’t. “Mostly closed” would be more like it.)
At the top of the mountain, we hit one final bump which made the interior ceiling lights all go out, and Clarence shifted into park with a protest from the transmission that made me think all this car needed to complete its image was some bullet holes from the Palestinian terrorists at Munich. Clarence could only get the door open with a crowbar, which he handily kept by his feet. (And which could double as a counter-weapon in case the relationship between he and the golf guys should deteriorate.)
We and our van mates — a mom named Allie with two kids — started doing calisthenics to extricate ourselves from the back row of seats. I told Allie the whole thing was like a Brooklyn Caribbean “dollar van” with an Irish golf-caddy chauffeur thrown in. “But even dollar vans have a rope rigged up so the driver can pull the door shut without having to leave his seat,” I said. Allie asked me if I’d ever been to the Dominican Republic, where she was from. “The vans there are doorless too,” she said, “only people just hop on and off without stopping.”
I looked at Clarence. He looked game.
We tumbled out of the van and kissed the ground we landed on, then stumbled into what was suddenly a civilized and orderly entry area for the ropes course, with harnesses all neatly laid out waiting to be stepped into and tightened by high school kids in smart polo shirts all working their summer jobs.
I looked up at the people dangling from the trees like tiny monkeys and wondered how secure the clips are if the van is falling apart as everyone harnessed up and went through a mini training session on how to use the system. It turns out one clip can’t be released until its matching twin is hooked onto a rope. So the kids were safe. The only trick was learning how to handle the clips while wearing giant suede gloves sized for small, medium, and large gorillas.
Once everyone got the hang of that, they were off, climbing and balancing on moving bits of wood and zip-lining over my head with a buzzing sound that made me think of circular saws and trips to the emergency room to sew on severed fingers. Though they were told to keep their hands off the metal ropes, still Allie zipped a bit of her hand as she grabbed onto a rope with the normal human instinct to hold onto something — anything — while flying through the air.
We clung together along the course in the way strangers in a strange land suddenly become family. So much so that when a man with two daughters coming up behind us — who clearly graduated from the Nazi school of how to make them overcome fear — felt that we weren’t moving fast enough forward and barked “Move it along up there!” Allie carefully and quietly said something back to him I couldn’t quite hear but made him instantly shut up. “Sor-ry,” he two-toned, in a way that said he wasn’t.
I gave Allie a thumbs up. She informed me she was a cop in Trenton and takes no sh#t from anybody. I told her I knew there was a reason we got along so well.
We got away from Gestapo Man and passed the rest of the time performing death-defying tricks so high up they reminded me of the guy who walked across the Twin Towers. After a few hours of high-wire tomfoolery, with muscles aching and Allie sharing pictures of herself high up in the trees with her partner working a foot patrol in some godawful area of Trenton, we decided it was time to unharness and call it a day.
And, waiting for the shuttle van back down the mountain, we unanimously agreed we would come again. Because despite the hair-raising ride with Clarence back to the parking lot (this time packed in with a whole gymnastics squad), and the danger-walk across the weedy wasteland to the car watching out for zombie golf cart guys who wanted to devour us, it was probably one of the best times we had ever had while flirting with disaster. Hands down. Even if one of your hands gets rope-burned.
More great stories in this week’s Orange County Post
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