Red toy car with a christmas tree tied to the roof on a snowy winters day
Red toy car with a christmas tree tied to the roof on a snowy winters day (Photo: Andrew Gardner / EyeEm / Getty)
Adventures in Audio

Holiday Adventures Gone Wrong

Red toy car with a christmas tree tied to the roof on a snowy winters day

Escaping the craziness of the season to head into the wild can sound amazing—right up until that overnight snowstorm crushes your tent. Because while the appeal of getting out there, away from the bustle of parties and gifts and eggnog, can inspire especially bold trips, there might be nothing more disappointing than a holiday mission that ends in disaster. For our final episode of 2022, we bring you a collection of tales from intrepid travelers who learned the hard way that eating dry turkey while debating politics with uncle Fred is hardly the worst way to spend a vacation.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

[advertisement]

Maren Larsen: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Hey everyone, before we get into today’s episode, I wanted to let you know that our friends at the Out Alive Podcast just released three new survival stories just in time for the holidays. If you have long drives or flights ahead of you or just need to escape from the family for a bit and lose yourself in some true life or death scenarios, check out Out Alive, available wherever you get your podcasts. 

And now, let’s get on with the show.

Maren: It’s finally that time of year again when people gather with family and friends and celebrate life and each other with enormous meals, delicious hot toddies, and–if you've been nice–some presents.

Add a roaring fire and some mistletoe, and you've got the perfect holiday.

Or maybe not. Because some of us have a hunger for adventure even when everyone else is stuffed with turkey.

Adam: It was the night before Christmas.

Kaelyn: Everywhere was like pouring rain or snowing.

Wes: Bone chillingly cold.

Christina: Flights were getting canceled like crazy.

Kaelyn: And we sat in a Motel six and ate ramen for Christmas.

Maren: These are some of Outside's staff members and contributors. True to that "Live Bravely" tagline that's on our print magazine covers, they opted to skip the mistletoe and mirth, and head into the wild, winter weather be damned. Alas, as can happen when we choose the road less traveled, things did not go exactly as planned. For any of them.

Tim: Ring the doorbell, and no one's there

Stephanie: We had this like rental car with bald tires.

Wes: And there's a dead mouse, like in the coffee pot,

Mike: Mostly they kept asking a question that we really didn't have a good answer for, which, Why did you do this?

Kaelyn: Like I definitely thought we were gonna get murdered.

Tim: We all just kind of look at each other like, ‘Oh my God, now what?’

Maren: For our final episode of 2022, we bring you a bushel of stories of holiday adventures gone sideways. And we start, with a short tale from Louisa Albanese, host of the Out Alive podcast, about an uninvited guest to a family party.

Louisa Albanese: I was young, probably in early high school and we had a full house and the fridge was bursting. Since It was in rural northeast Pennsylvania, it was pretty cold outside. And so we put a cooler on our deck where we had overflow feast.

It was getting close to dinner time and some family had started to arrive and I heard the commotion on our front deck.

So I opened the door and I see what is still one of the strangest tableaus that I have witnessed in real life. There is a female, black bear sitting, human style on her bottom, sitting on my deck with a pumpkin pie in each hand.

So I started clapping my hands and yelling and trying to scare the bear and She just looked at me rather annoyed that I was interrupting her dinner and I just closed the door. I went and relayed to my family what was going on. I think there's a picture somewhere of this black bear double fisting, our pumpkin pies, but we decided to take it as a loss. We were not going to get in between this bear and pumpkin pie.

Maren: That sounds like the right choice: you're down a couple pies, but nobody gets hurt and you come away with a fun story.

Our next tale comes from Adam Roy, Executive Editor at Backpacker Magazine, and it starts where so many holiday disasters begin: with an ill-fated call to an airline customer service department.

Adam Roy: The year was 2010. I had just finished a college study abroad program in Buenos Aires and my whole family had come out to visit me, afterward. And I'm talking to my parents and both my little sisters.

So I took 'em around the city. I showed them some of my favorite sites. And, to cap this trip off, we were gonna take a really spectacular vacation down to Tierra del Fuego, one of those life list destinations, penguins, ends of the earth, all that stuff. So it's the night before we're supposed to leave. The bags are packed. and my mom is going through her email to try and find the flight confirmations. She looks for probably about half an hour and can't locate them. So she calls the airport and gets through to somebody who speaks English, and I'm watching her on the phone and all of a sudden her voice gets really quiet and she just goes ashen. 

And she gets off and says they cannot find our reservation and that we don't have a ticket.

So at this point we're thinking, all right, there must be some kind of mistake. I'm the only one in the family who speaks Spanish, so I call back and I talk to them.

It turns out that at the time when you booked a flight on a domestic airline with a foreign credit card, you had to call them back within 24 hours and confirm the reservation, or they canceled it. They stated this in very obvious print on the website in Spanish, but if you looked at the English version of the website, it was a tiny footnote and small print at the bottom of the page.

Because we had booked the flights and then not called to confirm them, we had no tickets. And of course, we couldn't get any new seats on the flight because there were none. It was the night before Christmas. So I called the airline back and I said, ‘all right, where do you have a flight to?’

And after a little bit of back and forth, I managed to find a flight for all of us to Mendoza. Mendoza is nowhere near Tierra del Fuego, it's several hundred miles to the north and west, near the foothills of the Andes.

I had traveled a lot around Argentina when I had been there. I had never been to Mendoza. So nobody really knew what to expect. But from the time the plane started to circle the airport, we knew it was gonna be something special. Mendoza geographically is a little bit like Denver and that it is a kind of small to medium sized city that's not in the mountains. But it's close enough to the mountains that you can see them

Except in Argentina, the mountains are much, much bigger. The largest mountain in the western or southern hemisphere is Aconcagua, it’s a short drive away from Mendoza. The city was lit up beautifully. for the holiday. We spent a whole afternoon going to different wineries, Mendoza's in kind of the middle of Argentina's wine country.

Adam: And actually near the end of the trip, my sister and I hired a guide and went up to the peak of one of the mountains near Mendoza, um, and despite everything, we actually had a, a pretty good trip. and all of that was because of a stupid canceled reservation because somebody didn't see the fine print on some dumb airlines, website.

So I don't know what the moral of all that is. I guess that airlines suck and sometimes things turn out okay anyway.

Maren: As much as we'd all love to fault airlines for creating holiday havoc, sometimes there's no one to blame but ourselves. Tim Neville, a longtime correspondent for Outside, looks back with fondness on his years as a young, broke student with an adventure-or-bust mentality and a lax attitude towards trespassing. His story begins in 1995, when he was an exchange student from Montana State University in a town in newly opened East Germany.

Tim Neville: Pretty grim place, honestly. 50 years of neglect had worn on the city, like crappy gray building after crappy gray building.

Maren: Tim was planning a winter trip with two friends from back home, Bob and Pete. Christmas comes around and we have a break, and so I decide I have to get outta here. And the three of us had decided that we would go to Innsbrook for the holiday.

This is back before email and cell phone. So, we're organizing everything over letters and the occasional phone call. And, to make things even more complicated, Bob and I had planned to go ski in France on the front end of that trip. And so Pete was gonna somehow meet us in Innsbrook. So Bob and I go ski in France and we have a great time.

And then, uh, when we finally get to Innsbruck and we meet up with Pete, miracle of miracles, he's there. Our plan had been to go spend the holiday, with this friend of Bob also named Tim.

First of all, I need to stress just what dirtbags we were at this time.Like I was just flipping through my journal cause I wrote all this stuff down and there's scenes in this where we're like wandering around with literally 20 cents between us trying to like figure out what we're gonna do.

And Begging for olives. Like we go to the market and just, we're like, ‘Can, can I have an olive?’ You know, and like celebrating when we would get, one olive kind of thing. Right. So we had to be very judicious in where we spend our money. And so that's why this thing with Tim was so great. 

So we go, to his apartment and ring the doorbell.

And no one's there

We're like, ‘Okay, well he's just out or something, it's Christmas Eve.’ And so finally, a neighbor sees us out there and comes down and tells us, ‘yeah, no, Tim's not here. He's gone for the holidays.’

And so we all just kind of look at each other like, Oh my God, now what? 

And so Bob's like, well,I know of a park So we,we have all of our crap, we have our snowboards and our skis and all that stuff.

We drag all of our stuff through Innsbrook to this city park and night’s falling. Wet, it's cold. We're trying to figure out what we're gonna do and we happen across this like a storage gazebo thing in the park. And I think it was Pete, he goes up and tries the door and it's open.

It's actually like unlocked, we're like just so stoked. We're like, You know, like a roof and it's, it's wet inside and it's stacked floor to ceiling with park benches. they had just taken literally every bench in the park and stacked them up inside this thing.

And they also, they were really fond of playing chess, like with those, those really big oversized pieces. The chess pieces themselves are probably two, three feet tall.

And so those are all piled up inside here as well. And I may have had a sleeping bag, but I don't think Pete did. And in fact when I wrote him just now, I was like, ‘So how did we, how did we sleep?’ 

He's like, ‘Dude, we just got beer and down jackets and we just hung out there all night.’

Bob did have a sleeping bag, I remember, because he ends up taking the queen and, and putting her in his sleeping bag with him, so he could say he slept with the Queen. 

It was cold and wet, but, you know, and not much for Christmas Eve but we made the most of it.

And then the next morning, to our surprise, like the door opens and we thought, ‘Oh God, you know, the police are gonna kick us out.’ 

And no, it was just some locals, some old men there coming out to play chess. and then, you know, they were kind of wondering where the queen was. And so Bob had to sheepishly take the queen out of his sleeping bag. 

But the story has a happy ending because after hanging out there for most of Christmas day, Bob decided to go back to Tim's just to see if he was there.

And sure enough, he had come back. He hadn't actually left. He was just gone. And I don't even know if he was gone for that night or not, or if he was just late. You know, who knows? But we ended up being able to stay with him and we went skiing and had an awesome time. 

Yeah, so disaster. But, but uh, you know, one of those good disasters that you kind of look back on now, like, Oh, to have 20 cents in my pocket and just figure it out again. 

Maren: We'll be back with more merry mayhem after a short break.

[advertisement]

Maren: All kinds of questionable decisions can lead to an epic holiday misadventure. For some of us, it's half-planning a trip with our dirtbag friends, having little idea where we'll sleep on a cold night. For others, it's attempting to squeeze in an ambitious voyage before the big party.

This next story comes from contributing editor Stephanie Pearson. It involves an Olympic trial, two crappy cars, and a race against the clock to get home for Christmas.

Stephanie Pearson: I have to blame it on my first love. And he was a bi-athlete and he was a good bi-athlete and he wanted to try out for the Olympics, but he wasn't a great bi-athlete and there were only about four Olympic slots available.

He was about 12th at his highest ranking, but he wanted to go try out for the Olympics at Mondor Air Force Base in Alaska. And the, the tryouts were right before Christmas, so I decided that right before I would go Home for Christmas vacation, which was to Madison, Wisconsin. I would take a little detour up to Alaska because I had never been to Alaska and I really wanted to see these Olympic trials. 

So, so anyway, I decided to fly from Chicago to Anchorage, he was there for about a week and they were staying on the Air Force base And so I moved into the barracks with him and we slept in bunk beds. And he tried out for the Olympics. And not surprisingly, he didn't make the Olympic team. But, we then had some time to sightsee. And I was super excited to see Alaska, but I completely forgot the fact that it was the dead of winter and we were there for the winter solstice. And so I had these visions of going to Denali and seeing all this beautiful Alaskan wilderness when in reality there was about two hours of daylight. And the daylight. It's a, a very, a very interesting kind of daylight because it never gets totally bright. The sun just sort of arcs very low in the sky.

We had this like rental car with bald tires and we were driving it as far we could go on the roads that would literally stop because they were closed due to snow.

And so I remember, getting up at about 10:00 AM when the sun came up and then trying to just drive as far as we could to Denali to see, to see the mountain.

And we of course didn't get anywhere near close. But it was just a really funny and surreal introduction to Alaska.

But the real adventure came when we realized that I think our flight back to the lower 48 was on like the 23rd of December, and he had parked his car at the Salt Lake City airport and we had to get back to Madison, Wisconsin. And that's like a 1300 mile road trip. And the other thing I should mention is that Christmas is sort of a big deal in my family because my dad was a preacher. So, you know, to miss Christmas probably wouldn't have been an option. And so we had to really, really get home, quickly.

And so he had this old beater Toyota truck that had like 250,000 miles on it, and we just, literally could not stop in order to get to our Christmas festivities on time.

I don't know if you've ever driven from Salt Lake to Madison, Wisconsin, but it's through all this cow country. And so one of the things that I remember the most about this trip was they had in like 20 mile increments these big billboards and all they said was, ‘Merry Christmas, eat beef!’

We got to Madison, literally, I think, an hour before Christmas Eve dinner.

You know, whenever you walk into that alternate universe of family, there's always like, Oh, big happy, hello, you know, I remember that feeling of just being so excited and relieved that the plan worked, even if it was a totally half-assed plan in the first place.

And, I think Christmas was a blur of very much sleep deprived, gorging on good food. But, um, yeah, it was one that I will never forget.

Maren: Do you have any big travel planned for this year?

Stephanie: Actually, I try to stay home between Thanksgiving and Christmas, mostly because I just don't wanna be stressed out for the holidays.

Maren: Our last story today comes from our very own host and editor Michael Roberts. It turns out, Mike's twenties were marked by year after year of holiday season adventure chaos–much of it due to the companionship of a friend he met on a particularly eventful semester in Patagonia with the National Outdoor Leadership School. 

Michael Roberts: I ended up becoming extremely close with a guy named Eric who was really with me through the worst of it.

Maren: Their Patagonia experience involved getting very lost and trekking for five days in the mountains with almost no food while caring for an injured fellow student.

Michael: We came out of that and we decided we wanted to start taking our own expeditions together and build towards like bigger and bigger trips.

I believe it was two years later, late 1990s, I had a couple weeks off around the holidays and Eric had this idea, he's like, ‘I want to go do the Grain Canyon in winter.’ And his vision was we would ski in from the north side of the Grand Canyon, you'd ski through the snow to the canyon and then you'd end up throwing your skis on your back, you know, once the snow disappeared, hike down and sort of pop up on the south side. And it just sounded awesome. 

And he had a friend who I will call ‘O’ who was gonna join us as well.

So there were several problems going into this trip. One is like my winter camping experience was actually pretty limited. And all three of us had limited backcountry ski experience and we basically were planning on like what we could read in books and what was on the internet in the, you know, mid to late nineties.

This idea that like you would tow sleds behind you on skis and that was the really efficient way to do this cuz you can't carry all this weight on your pack through the snow. And we thought this would just be dandy. So I borrowed a telemark setup from a guy I worked with.

And so we show up on the northrim of the Grand Canyon and the first palm right away is they, it really light snow, like very, very little snow. Huge patches of grass and rock. And there we are with skis and plastic sleds. And it was like, what are we gonna do here?

And so our first day was sort of trying to like, go between patches of snow lifting the sled at times. And by the time we got to our campsite that night, we had gone much, much slower than we expected. Barely, made half the distance we had planned. And, you know, our sleds were already showing signs that like they weren't gonna make it unless we had a lot more snow. And so we set up camp and, you know, not sure exactly how we're gonna play things out. 

And that night it was an enormous storm. I think it dumped like over two feet of snow on us, maybe more. And it was also really heavy and wet. And so we were waking up at night and the tent was starting to cave in And so by morning some of that snow right around the tent where our body heat was, was warming up and melting. And so there was kind of like this slushy water around the base of the tent.

And it was really grim. You know, like it was an extremely uncomfortable, camping experience.

But we managed to sort of, you know, get packing and get going. And then we had of course, the challenge of being very inexperienced skiers in two feet of fresh snow, trying to pull sleds.

And it was very, very slow going, very sort of angry sled turning over, stomping through snow, sliding your skis cuz you don't really understand how they're supposed to work when you really hadn't done any training.

And once again, we barely made it, anywhere. It was like three to five miles, you know, at max.

Another rough, cold night. and we wake up the next morning and it's really cold now. The storm has left, but it's left behind it. Some incredibly cold weather, and as we're trying to like melt snow and get ourselves going, Eric's friend, O, just announces that he's done. And we're like, what do you mean? What do you mean we're done? He's like, this isn't what I bargained for. This is really hard and uncomfortable, And he was like, ‘I'm done. I want to go back.’ This was Christmas Eve when he announces he's finished and we're looking at each other and we're like, ‘well, what are we supposed to do?’

And the thing is we did have. One backup plan. It was sort of our emergency plan, which is out on the north room of the Grand Canyon. There was sort of this remote cross country ski lodge setup and it was really nice, you know, kind of high end people would take a snow cat to get in there. And they were always gonna be our emergency spot.

And here we were like pretty close to that spot. We knew they ran this snow cat, and we figured, ‘well, I guess we'll go to this place and just like see what the deal is.’ And so, you know, like sort of sad, defeated puppies. We ski into this spot and it's like this gorgeous lodge, And we go in asking about like, Hey, you know, when's the next snow cat? Can we get one outta here? And they're like, well, there's actually, there's none today, but there's one in a couple days.

And so we were like, ‘oh, can we like set up our tent here? But no, no, no, no. O wasn't gonna have that cuz we had stepped into a warm lodge and you could smell the food cooking. And he immediately started asking for like rooms and such. Now they were all booked up except they had one yurt available.

But you know, we had so little money and it was quite expensive and we didn't have like money with us, And so we ended up having to call our girlfriends at the time and begged them for their credit card numbers and they were like, ‘wait, I thought you guys were like camping.’

Like I thought this was like this big adventure. Like you're at this like high end lodge with a bunch of Europeans in spandex, cross country skiing. I think they were questioning if we had really gone to like Vegas or something. And we were like, ‘no, no, like this is really like this is happening.’

And so they gave us their credit card numbers and we ended up having to book two nights in this yurt. And what I remember most is Sitting for a Christmas Eve dinner in this rather nice lodge with all these people who had like ugly Christmas sweaters and everything just right for the holidays.

And we were in our backcountry ski gear cause that's all we had, just sitting there like quietly eating from a buffet. It was such a defeated sense cuz we also knew we didn't have to go back and, and like, figure out the money to pay our girlfriends back.

We were sort of a bit of a spectacle at this lodge. You know, people kept coming up to us and being like, like, what did you, how did you get here? You know, you actually skied in here and how did you do that? Why did this seem like a good idea at all? 

You know, we got in a little skiing and we sort of tried to embrace it as best we could over the next day. But then, eventually just got on the snow cat to get outta there.

And, that was the last holiday trip I took with my friend Eric.

Maren: Maybe the lesson here is: don't go on a holiday vacation with a notorious sandbagger. Also: check the forecast before you hit the trail.

In fact, through all the travel snafus and miscommunications and poor planning, everyone here learned some important lessons. Louisa learned to not leave her pies unattended in bear country. Adam learned to read the fine print on airline tickets. Tim learned how to find accommodations the dirtbag way, and Steph learned that you really should visit Alaska in the summertime.

But really, Mike says that there was a bigger lesson for him here, as someone who spent most of his 20s avoiding spending the holidays at home and opting instead for big trips that were often destined for disaster.

Michael: I used to be someone who did not embrace the comfort and warmth and glow of the holidays. 

I grew up as a kid with sort of mixed backgrounds, and we didn't do presents. We would often do a trip, which I thought was better. But then you get to your twenties and I just, I didn't know how to celebrate the holidays. 

And since I've got in a serious relationship and gotten married, I would say it's been like a full turnabout. And I think those experiences of sort of pain and disillusionment trying to avoid the holidays and pursue adventure, I'm just so on the other side of that. I mean, you get me to the holidays now and I wanna like kick back in front of a fire and drink eggnog with brandy in it.

As much as I love, and still love type two, fun and getting out there and having things go wrong and getting lost, It, it, it really is better if you can offset it with some experiences that are just really pleasant. 

It's not good to always have it be difficult. It's not good to always put yourself to the edge. Um, sometimes it's, it's just fine to kick back and think about the times you did that.

Maren: What are you doing this holiday season?

Mike: Uh, I'm taking a family vacation to a beach.

Maren: Thank you to Louisa Albanese, Adam Roy, Tim Neville, Stephanie Pearson, and Michael Roberts for sharing their stories with us. Thanks also to Kaelyn Lynch, Chistina Chappetta, and Wes Siler.

This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Scoring and mixing by Robbie Carver.

Listener, if you have a story of holiday hijinks you'd like to tell, record it as a voice memo and email it to us at podcast@outsideinc.com. And if you're enjoying this show, leave us a review wherever you listen, or tell your friends about us during your new year's hut trip.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about the many benefits of membership and join us at outsideonline.com/podplus.

Maren: How had you planned to get back up the other side with that gear?

Mike: To be honest, I don't remember. 

Follow the Outside Podcast

Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.