Spring Break in Hell (The Wisconsin Dells)

It’s been a long time since I’ve had quality alone time with my six-year-old daughter. We get interludes now and then. We color together on the deck. We soak in our hot tub. We snuggle at bedtime. But these interludes last just minutes — an hour, at best — before I have to get back to also taking care of other things and people in my life. That’s why our overnight date in the Wisconsin Dells yesterday had me so excited.

It was just an hour drive, but I managed to make it feel like two by suggesting partway into it that we sing Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall. I hadn’t realized she cannot count backwards yet. I also hadn’t anticipated that she’d want to sing the version from Olivia. This meant that for a half hour, we sang about buckets of slime on the wall.

A hawk seemed to be following us. We’d see it circling overhead every few minutes or so. “Maybe he thinks we’re dead,” my daughter suggested. I don’t know if hawks eat carrion, but I did sort of want to shoot myself before we arrived to our destination town:

I got a sinking feeling as we drove into town, the Water Park Capital of the World. The skyline was snaked over with garish plastic tube slides in bright colors, and littered with signs promising we could pet deer, be human gyroscopes, eat homemade fudge, or ride zip lines — at rundown parks, museums, shops, and cabin-style kiosks that would prove to be closed for the season. My daughter noticed one sign for a 4-D Spongebob Squarepants movie. Help me, God. As if watching him in 2-D isn’t torture enough. I redirected her attention to a log-cabin trailer where a sign said we could feed live alligators. It was called Alligator Alley. (Yes, please taunt us with the fact that we did not actually go to sunny Florida, to the real alligator alley, for a real vacation.)

Our resort was lacking a certain je ne sais quois. The antithesis to luxurious, it was instead a sprawling Roman-themed THING boasting lots and lots of rollercoasters. My daughter hates rollercoasters, but no matter: They were all closed for the season. The entrance was manned by a replica of the Trojan Horse, or maybe I should say horsed by one. Either way, it sort of summed up all that lay ahead:

Our two-room suite was anything but sweet. The walls were painted, apparently by the high school art class, with dramatic portraits of Zeus exploding out of stormheads and zapping lightning at things. It had cheap laminate wood floors that resonated the clonking footfalls of so many obese Wisconsin cheese-eaters enjoying mid-week resort rates. A faux-masonry wallpaper border, peeling and beginning to streak onto the paint around it, encircled the bathroom, which had a two-inch gap under the door. Did I mention I had diarrhea? No? Well, I did. We’re talking 30-toilet-trips-per-day diarrhea. I’d had it for two days straight by this point, though it had mostly mutated into noxious gas by the time we checked in.

I’d noted as we waited in the interminable check-in line how the Dells has the peculiar infamy of being one of the world’s few bathing-suit-laden vacation areas where most of the people look absolutely awful in their bathing suits. And they don’t even care. They just sit there eating their nachos and drinking their beer and bright-red daquiries while their bellies spill over the tops of bikinis. Pasty white, cellulite-laden, hairy bodies only a mother could love, except that even a mother couldn’t love them because of the crude things they wear: Tattoos of naked people, t-shirts talking about kicking asses or wanting to suck this or that.

Inside, we swam in a big pool. I watched my daughter try again and again and again to master the “lily pad” floaters that were tethered to the bottom of one pool. It took about 20 attempts. There was nowhere I could stand and watch her without getting sprayed in the face by the backwash off some hairy Wisconsinite that kept showering himself like an Irish Spring soap commercial under a decorative waterfall along the side of lily pads. He was so big, and the spray so strong, that I just had to literally take it in the face as I cheered for my girl.

To my amazement, my daughter suggested we brave together a raft-ride down a big tube slide that twisted and turned. Not only was I proud of her, but it was such sweet relief: a semi-private place to break wind. By this time I was fairly sure I was all out of diarrhea but totally filled up with noxious gas. Every release was a risk, and every release was a relief. But such a stench as I’d not known I could create! A person can’t just let those babies fly in the pool either. We all know that. Plus, these weren’t the light and airy sort that just drift away like a parfum. These were thick, lingering things with their own personalities; they were cramping me badly. Over and over I talked my daughter into going down the tube slide. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be the riders behind us.

Late afternoon, we decided to get dressed and venture over to the indoor theme park. We had to walk to another building on the giant property, and when we got there, I immediately got a headache. It was one big indoor amusement park, peddling fake tattooes and churros and bumpercar rides. My daughter wanted to play the arcade games, but our wristbands — fluorescent things with SKUs connected to my credit card — weren’t honored in the arcade. They sent us back to the main hotel to get tokens. We instead stayed in the lobby arcade, where my daughter learned the fine art of gambling. There were about two actual games and about forty coin-eating machines that spit out a long string of tickets every so often. She won a boatload of tickets and cashed them in with the arcade cashier, a balding pedophile-type (suprising, I know) with greasy, stringy red hair down to the middle of his back. She bought some liquid ballons-in-a-tube that she could blow up using a special straw. They came with a warning not to eat them and even smelled carcinogenic. She blew up about fifteen of them in our room, each of which lasted about 45 seconds, leaving sad balloon corpses all over the floor. She named every one of them before they shriveled up and died.

Overstimulated from the crowds, we decided to order dinner and watch an in-room movie. I called a place that boasted free delivery to the hotels and ordered up more grease for us. When I turned on the TV, all I coulg get was snow. I went into the other room and tried that TV. More snow.

“Hello, this is the front desk. How may I help you?”

“I can’t seem to figure out how to use your TVs. All I get is snow.”

“Yes, ma’am. The cable is out. It’s been out all day.”

Great. Now we were sitting in a sparse hotel room with an upclose view of some landscaping rocks, listening to Hmong maids arguing in the hallway, waiting with Cartoon Zeus for greasy food. Not exactly what I’d had in mind when I was planning this trip back in November. I was pissed.

“Hello, this is the front desk. How may I help you?”

“Hi. I just called about the TVs and was told the cable’s out, which is fine. I get that. I’m just wondering if you have any games for guests to play in-room, books, anything. We’ve just ordered up food and were going to watch a movie, but now we’re just sitting here staring at each other.”

“We can send up a DVD player, if you’d like. They’re $10 to rent.”

“You’re going to charge me? Are you serious?”

“Well, ma’am, I guess you’re right. No charge, but you have to bring it back once the cable comes back on.”

“What if we’re in the middle of our DVD and don’t know it’s come back on?”

“Well, hmn. I guess that’s fine. Bring it back then.”

At this point I called the restaurant and asked them to hold off delivery. We drove to what our GPS told me was the nearest video store — past closed swimsuit stores, closed candy stores, nailed-up realty offices, and endless greasy joints. The sign on the locked door of the video store said, “Be back in five minutes.” I felt like I needed to use the bathrooom — liquid or gas? liquid or gas? — it was agonizing trying to tell. And I was just tired, so I kind of started to lose it just a little in front of my daughter. “Who DOES this?” I said. “Are they KIDDING?”

Just then a young guy unlocked the door from the inside. Maybe he had diarrhea, too, so I was immediately ashamed and forgave him. My daughter started roving about the store, a train wreck of a place that had no apparent organization system. I kept calling her to come back as I tried to sign up for a membership, not sure if she was going to be confronted with skin flicks at any given turn. I told her I didn’t want her looking around the store without me. I finally looked at the guy, sighed, and said, “Do you have adult movies here?” The guy didn’t even blink as he directed me to them, thinking I wanted to rent one. Seriously? Women come in with their kindergartners to rent porn?

That sealed it.
I hate the Dells.

We rented James and the Giant Peach, phoned the restaurant to tell them we we’re ready, and then climbed in bed together and waited for our cold, greasy dinners. After eating, after giggling and chatting, as I thought we were drifting off to sleep together in the dark, my daughter said, “Mom, what is that? It looks like Medusa’s head. I can’t sleep in here!” I’d taken out my contact lenses by this time, and I’m blind as a bat, but I could sort of make out what she was describing across the room. It was the orange glow of the lightswitch reflected off a mirror, looking like a pair of eyes. The shadows around it were indeed spindly and strange, and now I was freaked out, too. We had to move into the other bed in the other room. Which was really no big deal, because neither bed had so much as a comforter — just sheets and a thin waffle-weave blanket.

She kept turning perpendicular to me, rolling away with all the covers. She kicked me in the spleen, in the arms, in the face. She kept grinding her teeth. Since when does she grind her teeth? I realized it had to be all the sugar, the high-fructose corn syrup coursing through her system. And then I remembered we forgot to brush her teeth. Just then a thunderstorm started. It was almost loud enough to drown out the herds of cheeseheads that soon came tromping down the hallway when the arcade and pools closed. The pimply kids and their pockmarked parents were laughing and yelling, making the place sound like the very thing the website advertised it to be. I fell asleep thinking maybe my daughter hadn’t noticed how really crappy it all was. Maybe she’d had fun just being with me, the same way I’d had fun just being with her.

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