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Idaho — famous for its leaning tree of doom

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This classic Dave Barry column was originally published on Oct. 30, 1994.

There is a simple explanation for why I wound up dangling from a rope 75 feet in the air over a beaver dam somewhere in Idaho: I was a house guest.

You know how it is, when you're a houseguest: If your host suggests an activity, you, as a polite person, tend to say "sure." My host in this case was my good friend Ridley Pearson, who makes his living writing thriller novels, which means he spends his days thinking up sentences like: "Roger awoke in a dark room and sensed immediately that his body had been surgically removed from his head."

What I'm saying is that Ridley has some spooky closets in the mansion of his mind. This is why I should have been suspicious when, the night I arrived at his house, he casually said, "I thought that tomorrow we could climb a tree."

This struck me as an odd activity for a couple of guys in their 40s. Guys our age generally prefer a more mature type of recreation, such as scratching. It was as if Ridley had said, "I thought that tomorrow we could play hide and seek." But I was a houseguest, so all I said was "sure."

The next morning, we had breakfast with Ridley's brother, Brad, and a friend named Amos Galpin, and then the four of us set off in Ridley's car to find a tree to climb. This enabled me to see some of Idaho (official motto: "Nobody Knows Where It Is"). It's a nice state, containing a tremendous quantity of scenery, as well as several roads and at least one city named "Ketchum." The state license plate says "IDAHO" on the top, and on the bottom it says — I am not making this up — "FAMOUS POTATOES." Apparently, this was judged to be the most alluring possible license-plate slogan, narrowly edging out "IDAHO — A WHOLE LOT OF ROCKS" and "IDAHO — YOU'LL SMELL THE COWS."

Most of Idaho is outdoors, the result being that local residents are able to enjoy year-round interaction with the natural environment, which gradually drives them insane. At least that's apparently what happened to Ridley, Brad and Amos, because they have turned tree-climbing into a serious, full-fledged sport, with special equipment and everything.

They do not climb just any tree. We drove past several million normal, sturdy, vertical trees before stopping at what had to be the most unsafe-looking tree in North America. I could not believe that the tree authorities even permitted this tree to exist. It was next to a beaver pond, and it was leaning WAY over at a stark angle, looking as though it would crash to the ground if a beetle climbed up it, let alone four middle-aged guys who had recently consumed large omelets.

"Is this tree safe?" I asked the guys.

"Ha ha!" they reassured me. They then helped me put on the special tree-climbing equipment, which they call a "harness," although what it looks like is an enormous green athletic supporter. It has a pair of 10-foot safety straps attached to it; the idea is that you clip these to the branches as you climb, so that if you fall, instead of smashing into the ground and getting killed, you fall only until your safety strap becomes taut, at which point you turn into a human pendulum and slam into the side of the tree and get killed.

At least that's what I was thinking as I inched higher and higher up the Death Tree. The other guys seemed oblivious to the danger.

"Look at that view!" they'd remark.

"Huh!" I'd reply, admiring the scenic vista of the 2 square inches of bark directly in front of my face. I hate heights. I was clinging to this tree so passionately that I might very well have committed an act of photosynthesis with it. And it did not help my mood any to know that the area was infested with beavers. At any moment, I expected to hear a tail slapping on the water, which is the beaver signal for, "COME QUICKLY! DORKS IN GIANT JOCKSTRAPS HAVE CLIMBED AN EASY-TO-GNAW-DOWN TREE!"

But beavers did not gnaw down our tree. What happened was much worse: When we got near the top of the tree, Ridley informed me that we were going to get down by "rappelling," a technique that was invented by mountain climbers who had spent a lot of time at high altitudes with no oxygen getting to their brains.

The way rappelling works is, you close your eyes, jump out of the tree and slide down on a slim, unsafe-looking rope, which is attached to your harness via a metal fitting that enables you to slide WAY faster than would be possible under the influence of gravity alone, so that you reach speeds estimated at 450 mph as you hurtle toward the ground, crashing through branches while your fellow climbers shout helpful instructions that you cannot hear because you're devoting all of your mental energy to sphincter control. At least that's how I handled it.

All in all, it was an extremely memorable experience that I will devote the rest of my life to trying to forget. I'm looking forward to the day when Ridley is my houseguest, so that I can plan an equally fun activity for him. I'm thinking maybe we could play tag.

With chain saws.

Dave Barry is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He is continuing a leave of absence from writing his weekly humor column. Write to him c/o The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132. Knight Ridder Newspapers