TAKING ON WIND, COLD, VERMICELLI

I worked hurriedly against the light. It was Day Two of our adventure and the bosses would soon arrive in their SUVs, their windows steamed from the heating and their cups of Peet’s latte.

Across the concrete turnaround in front of our camp, I laid out jagged branches like spikes that severely damage tires if you exit a garage the wrong way. Then, along the narrow roadway to our camp, I set down 10 spiny pine cones placeholders for the heads that would come. Finally, I set upon our sign that read “Camp Donner,” and on the back wrote: Enter Ye Those Who Dare.

We were ready.

Only 24 hours had passed since my comrades and I had been sent to survive on the unforgiving campgrounds of Mount Diablo. I had been selected long ago, in my absence (as with most of my assignments). With only the clothes on our backs (plus two boxes of firewood, a 10-pound bag of kindling, two tents, four sleeping bags, a bag of rice and junk food hidden in the forest), we had to pit our dulled wits against the environment and one another.

At least, that was the bosses’ plan. Blindfolded and dropped off somewhat nauseated by the wayside, we had to navigate with only our senses as well as a cryptic Macromedia Freehand-illustrated map and a compass. After the 15-minute walk, delayed when we checked the park map sign, chatted with a passing worker and posed for pictures with our personal photographer, we at last found what would be our testing grounds for the next 36 hours.

Our job was to probe that dark humanity within all of us, and it seemed dissension was inevitable. There was Damin Esper, a brutish fellow whose ponytail holder is the only thing that separates him from a long-haired, red-headed savage. There was Gary Bogue, whose preternatural ability to communicate with animals would have had him thrown in a ravine centuries ago. There was latecomer Randy Myers, a Features overseer. There was myself, the eternal compromiser, the hard worker, the team player characteristics that would mark me as doomed.

Our host, Chuck Barney, presented three challenges, two of which I came close to winning. In the gastronomic two-part test, I easily finished the blindfold taste test, which turned out to be childhood snacks of dried mango, cuttlefish, Asian pork rinds and white wine herring (I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood). Then, to eat an inordinate amount of bean thread vermicelli in the quickest time seemed like an easy victory especially since I could shove food in my mouth and others off the bench at the same time.

However, as the ice cold noodles backed up in our esophagus and turned our fingers numb, we quickly realized that they were of chewing, not swallowing, consistency. But Myers, Myers, the man who takes all afternoon to eat a congealing lunch, ate like a boa constrictor patiently sucking down a gopher. Once he started eating the noodles that he had dropped on the picnic table, I decided the prize of a sandwich and a cold can of Coke wasn’t worth it and went for cuttlefish seconds.

Left alone by 4 p.m., we built our fire and gathered around the grill for a tasty meal of rice, Spam and Vienna sausage pat (well, the sausages didn’t go down as well). We talked about the day’s work, how we had met the challenges with ease and, indeed, craved more manly contests. We toasted Twinkies, walked the grill of fire and sharpened sticks for bloodsport. We constructed contests beyond the wildest imaginations of workman’s comp.

It was then we realized that it was time to take charge. We wrote up a Survivor Manifesto and list of demands. I persuaded Myers to allow himself to be strung up, as a show of ruthless force to the bosses (we compromised with tying rope around his ankle).

The next morning, marked with charcoal and frilly head scarves, we were ready for the tribal council revolt. The name on our chalkboards, we plotted, would be Barney. Plan B was ourselves. Plan C was Gary and myself for a tie, Plan D was voting off executive editor John Armstrong.

By the time we got to Plan X, I volunteered for the cause. We would read the Manifesto, vote and then sabotage the remaining challenges. The first sabotage didn’t work very well I stood behind Armstrong signaling the answers as he read the “Who Wants to Be an East Bay Genius?” quiz, but the guys didn’t catch it. So much for geniuses. After Armstrong throttled me, I was escorted off the mountain.

I had to wait for my boss, since my keys and wallet were in her locked drawer; so the only arsenal I had time to get was hot cocoa, peppermint tea and apples. By the time I returned to the camp, the boys were on their last contest. It was getting windy, and lack of sleep due to the chilly climes and tentmate Bogue’s snoring began to hit me. “Stay for the final vote,” they urged, but when they chased after a tent in the wind and rain, I drove off. The hail hit by the time I reached home.

Some might say I abandoned the team, some might say they abandoned me. Well, during my escort, I did persuade the bosses to throw a celebratory dinner on the company card. Plus, the guys said they’d take me out to lunch for bringing the hot drinks.

And I await the seeds of rebellion that had first been planted on the slopes of Mount Diablo.

Vera Chan is the Times Events Editor who also frequently writes the “And Another Thing” column in Friday TimeOut. She can be reached at vchan@cctimes.com.

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