No. 1 in an occasional series titled “Never Been There, Never Done That,” in which the author reports on a brand-new adventure.
The date had been on my calendar for at least a month. “May 28: Columbus trip.” I’d added it when my girlfriend and I were on our way to a movie at The Neon and started talking about shopping at H&M when she mentioned this trip. But I had no clue what, exactly, I had agreed to do.
The Thursday before, I figured I’d better find out.
Turns out I agreed to go to “Africa” for the day, a.k.a. journey into the wild and feast on Ethiopian fare with her and some members of Reel Culture @ Sinclair, a club she founded at the community college. At 9 a.m. On a Saturday. After a friend’s 60th birthday bash.
I have no idea what The Wilds is so I Google it the night before and discover it’s a wildlife preserve in the middle of Uh Huh Where-evah, Ohio. So much for H&M.
But, hey, wild animals are cool. I have lots of zebra- and leopard-print tops, jackets, purses, shoes and scarves to prove it. Plus, I figure having to get up so early in the morning will keep me in check at the party.
I should have known better. Instead, I’m one of the last standing and lurch into bed at 3 a.m. When my friend calls a handful of hours later to make sure I’m awake, my head is booming as if resting on an amp at X-Fest. I can’t really feel my feet. My mouth feels as if full of peanut butter I can’t swallow.
Somehow, I manage to slither out of bed. I put on my cowboy boots in case I need to wrestle a rhinoceros. I guzzle three cups of water.
My friend picks me up, and the trip is immediately off to an amazing start with a stop at a Dayton gas station, where I see a punk rock little person, mohawk and
camos and all. Yes!, I think. Wild things already are starting to appear!
In the car, the conversation quickly turns profound. Psychics, animal spirits, Buddhism, quantum physics ― it’s all in there.
I fish my phone out of my purse and get on Facebook.
“In a car with a bunch of people who go to college,” I post. “Talking about how E=MC2 is really an equation about consciousness and the evolution of god and what is god anyway? I am a working girl with a brain full of last night’s bourbon. I want to talk about TV shows and bubblegum.”
Normally, I would be intrigued by such a conversation and happily contribute to an esoteric discussion about ancient times when goddesses held sway over the solar plexus of the Earth. The morning after a night when I was a driving force in the elimination of at least two bottles of booze? Not so much.
My traveling mates are all very nice, fine, upstanding ladies — all middle aged, not your typical college students. But I can’t help zoning out, staring through the windows until I see something so hilarious, I belly laugh until I nearly cry. I’m trying not to offend the fine ladies in the car, so I’m back on Facebook: “I just interrupted a conversation about the pain and glory of forgiveness to point out that the logo on the sign for the Lion’s Den Adult Superstore is silhouettes of two lions makin’ cubs,” I post.
As we near the capitol city, my friend hands me the directions to The Wilds she’s jotted on a Post-It note. I’m relieved I now can concentrate on navigation instead of trying to avoid the reality that I appear as intelligent as a washcloth to the fine ladies in this car. But I immediately have another concern.
“Girl,” I say, “this says we take exit 155, and we just passed exit 87. This must be a ways down the road. Are you sure The Wilds is in Columbus?”
“Oh, my bad,” she chirps. “I’m pretty sure that should say exit 115. I must have written it down wrong.”
Say a prayer for GPS on my phone.
“Aaaaactualllly,” I draw out the word as if pulling taffy out of my mouth, “The Wilds is outside Zanesville. We have to drive almost to West Virginia. According to Google Maps, we have another hour and 26 minutes.”
At least the fine ladies in the car have a scintillating conversation going to keep us all entertained.
“Speaking in tongues ― to me, that’s not unusual,” one is saying. “My mom speaks in tongues.”
This is the same fine (reminder: middle aged) lady who will spend the day talking about the “moo moos” and “horsies.” At one point, she begins squealing “Wheeee!” from the back seat of the car as we loop around curves and pop over hills. My friend looks in the rear view mirror and asks, “Did you all hear that siren?”
“It’s just me entertaining myself!,” she exclaims.
I am tantalized by her girlish exuberance. She is so innocent and carefree and bubbly and all the things I will never be, there in the front seat of the car, back on Facebook frantically trying to untag myself from photos ― as I’m getting text after text telling me I’ve been tagged in a photo ― that a friend took during last night’s party.
And the ride is an adventure unto itself.
We take a wrong turn and end up on a narrow, steep, winding road. “Uh, I don’t think this is the right way,” my friend says, stopping the SUV to ask for directions from a young, long-haired man bent over his pit bulls in front of a trailer. He stands up and we notice he’s wearing only his briefs. Pulled down reeeeal low.
He doesn’t know where The Wilds is, either.
Back on track, the scenery along the roadside is mesmerizing: A billboard featuring a huge, creepy hamster hanging on a rope. A tractor crossing sign. Coon Ridge Road. Top Gun Shooters Ammo & Supplies. A sign reading “llamas for sale.” Carl Rittberger’s Meat and Sausages. A catfish-shaped white mailbox. Mother Truckers. And, finally ― halleluiah! ― The Wilds.
We load onto a bus for our safari (in Ohio) of the 10,000-acre wildlife conservation preserve that is The Wilds. The driver, a polite young man who clearly has told his spiel countless times, tells us about some of the animals we’re likely to see. Although he notes we’re unlikely to see one of the three deer species roaming The Wilds. One woman who’s worked there for 11 years hasn’t even spotted one.
I raise my hand. “Which one is the elusive deer?” I ask. He answers. I poke my friend in the seat next to me. “We’re totally going to see an Eld’s Deer,” I proclaim. “I can feel the magic!”
“Uh, sure,” the driver says. “Well, let’s start the tour. It’s time for me to take you all out to pasture!”
Turns out, those pastures are lined with electric fences and motorized gates. We have to wait for the gate behind the bus to close before we can open the one in front of us, meaning we are temporarily trapped in an electrified cage. Making The Wilds feel like a scene in Jurassic Park. “What if we see a T-Rex?,” I whisper to our group. “That would be almost as cool as seeing the magic deer!”
But it’s no joke: We did see a lot of animals I never, ever — ever! — would have expected to encounter in the Buckeye State. We could almost stretch our hands out the bus’ tiny windows and rub the ears of the Bactrian Camels, Masai Giraffes and Przewalski’s Wild Horses. The Persian Onagers are so close they’re about to come on board. We look through binoculars to see the Grevy’s Zebras, Southern White Rhinos and Fringe-Eared Oryx. My friend is particularly taken with the Banteng, which she lovingly dubs “jungle cows.”
We disembark at two stops, one by a lake where we can get close to a rare species of swan and see invasive plants The Wilds staff calls “aliens,” so noted with signs sporting Martian-like creatures. The best is the carnivore area, where we wander around caged pens housing snoozing cheetahs and African Wild Dogs.
“I wish I had a hot dog in my purse that I could throw over the fence so we could see a little carnivorous action,” my friend says.
“Yeah, how do they feed these animals?,” I ask. “I mean they’re supposed to be wild, which means they’d need to hunt, which means they must put goats out or throw rabbits in their cages at night.”
“I feel like we’re on the set of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village,” my friend says.
At one point, the bus stops for more animal viewing via binoculars. “Holy moly, it’s the elusive deer!,” my friend cries, handing me the binoculars. “It is! It is!,” I cry in return, jumping in the seat.
The bubbly horsie/moo moo fine lady looks through the binoculars. “No, that’s an Indochina Sika Deer,” she says, pointing to The Wilds brochure and noting the antlers.
“Dang,” I think. “I could have lived the rest of my life thinking I’d seen the magic deer. Thanks, girl.”
Still, I gotta say, I went on a bona fide safari in Kenya years and years ago, and The Wilds really does invoke those memories. Amazing.
Back in the car making the long trek home, we’re all starving. I’m about to jump the electric fence and hunt down a Scimitar-Horned Oryx. I swear I could eat an entire Sable Antelope.
Lucky for us, my friend has planned a special stop at an Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus. As soon as we drive the nearly two hours back to the capital city, we will eat like African queens.
She actually called the owner in advance to let him know we’re coming and arranged for him to give a talk about Ethiopian food and customs. Problem is, since the drive to The Wilds was double the miles and the tour took twice the anticipated time, we are about four hours late.
Yet the owner is still happy to accommodate us. At first.
Turns out, one of the fine ladies is gluten intolerant. If she so much as licks anything that even touched gluten, she’ll blow up like Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But Ethiopian food is eaten with injera. Which is bread.
The owner doesn’t quite seem to understand “gluten intolerant,” but tells the fine lady he can bring her some rice. So after about a half hour of examining the exotic menu, we order. Samosas come out first. The fine ladies are mostly puzzled by the lack of silverware. “Um, where’s our forks?” one asks. But Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. Which are not forks.
The owner brings my vegetarian friend, shortly after she finished telling a story about how she once spoke fluent Aramaic, a lamb dish. “No,” she says, adamant. “I am a vegetarian. I told you this. I can’t eat lamb.” I think she throws in a few Aramaic words for good measure. The owner huffs off with a dish of uneaten food. (The bubbly fine lady later points out, much as she did when correcting our false sighting of the elusive deer, that my friend actually did order the lamb dish. Oops.)
The owner brings the no-gluten fine lady and her friend a platter with the three dishes they’re sharing. All neatly laid out on top of inchera. The fine lady is a little petrified. There is another scuffle as she reminds the waiter she can’t eat bread, but all is resolved after my friend points out she can scoop off the food on the top that has not been in contact with the devil gluten.
By now, the owner has retreated to the back, where he’s probably downing Tej, and a waitress brings us our check. Which is wrong. We’ve been charged for items we never even ordered.
Time to get out of Africa. Fast.
But back in the car, for the remaining hour and half drive back to Dayton, all the fine ladies are jovial and appreciative
of the opportunity to travel to the grand continent for a day. They thank my friend for the experience.
“You are so cultured,” one gushes. “I would really like to hang out with you more. How did you get this way?”
“I attribute a lot of it to the company I keep,” my friend matter-of-factly replies. “Take Kristen, for example. She lived in Iran and Egypt and has shared her experiences with me.”
I turn around in the passenger seat, popping a grin. “And I kept a Turkish lover for awhile,” I add, forgetting that I need to keep myself in check when around nice people.
Really, though, it was these people, these fine ladies, who made the trip such an adventure. I expected The Wilds to be the crux of the escapade. But an entire day in the company of these ladies turned out to be the wildest of all. And isn’t that always the case? It’s the people, at least as much as the place, that turn out to be the most interesting part.
Readers: Tell us about some wild people you’ve met. And I need your help: Suggest some places I’ve likely never been and things I’ve likely never done for No. 2 in this series.