Sleepless Near Seattle

John C. Hollinger

© Copyright 2021 by John C. Hollinger

Photo by the author.

Rain, coffee, granola, and grunge. As we hit the outskirts of the Mecca of all these things, none were on our Seattle to-do list. This visit would be a targeted suburban strike: two goals, three to four hours. In and out, quick and easy. Or not.

Having previously lived in Vancouver, Canada, our vagabond family had played the role of Washington tourist many times. Being situated just outside the northwestern-most point of the conterminous United States meant our American road trips inevitably started the same way, southbound on the I-5 towards the region’s largest metropolis. Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, museums, parks - weve thoroughly experienced the city. Washington is beautiful and a great place to visit. But sometimes it’s also 71,000 square miles separating us from new adventures.

Today was day one of our newest foray into the lower 48. We had grandiose plans to tick the dozen or so remaining unvisited U.S. states and major cities off our travel bucket list. But well over a thousand miles lay between us and our first destination, San Diego. This trip was so fresh that our cat, Tino, had not yet decided on a favorite spot in the motor home (which changed drastically trip to trip - under a chair, in the bunk above the cab, on the dashboard…), nor had our paraplegic dog, Boo, realized this wasn’t just a detour-extended ride to the park that she had to be awake and alert for, in case we missed a turn. Even our aging class C was still winterized, antifreeze instead of water protecting the pipes from cold weather damage. That means our home on wheels lacked a working bathroom, which would be fine for a few days thanks to interstate rest stops and the hospitality of the ever present megastore, Walmart.

Our first goal of two brought us to the Whole Foods in Bellevue, searching for an elusive magical potion: toothpaste. A couple of months ago, during another American excursion, while browsing a random small town pharmacy, Heike discovered a special no dye, no chemical, no SLS, no bad stuff at all toothpaste. The only drawback was that it was strawberry flavored. Heike bought it anyway. As it turns out, the fruity taste was actually the best part. It was so good that Heike's new toothpaste philosophy became "mint is for suckers". Ever since this epiphany, Heike had been looking for more of this special strawberry wonder-paste. Although many stores carried the product line (the Honest Company), nobody seemed to stock their toothpaste. We had already fruitlessly checked dozens of locations across multiple states and provinces but we had high hopes here in Bellevue: a giant organic and natural retailer in a major metropolitan area. As we reached the oral care shelves, Heike’s heart rose… then sunk. They had the toothpaste… in mint. Given Heike's newfound feelings about mint, the level of derision in response to John’s ridiculous suggestion that she “just buy that one” should have been no surprise.

With Heike's paste quest temporarily unfulfilled, John had his own search - a place to watch the Canada vs USA World Cup of Hockey game. Heike located a prospect on our GPS and we rambled over to the nearby Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Heritage Park was the perfect place to stash the motor home. We strapped Boo into her wheelie cart and Tino into the stroller (yes, we’re ‘those’ people) and sauntered several blocks to the bar.

To our pleasant surprise, Kirkland is a lovely area with pretty houses and trendy businesses. Time Out Sports Bar, however, does not fit into the neighborhood. John popped in to check it out anyway. The interior was a stereotypical dive bar - no windows, dark, dank, and uninviting. Still, John wanted to watch the game, so he asked the bartender if they would have it on. His glowing response was a disgusted sneer followed by, "I guess. There's nothing else to watch." Feel the love.

While John was inside, Heike noticed that across the street was a restaurant called Wing Dome. The front was glass and inside she could see sports on the televisions. A quick inquiry was met with enthusiasm: "Of course! We can put hockey with the sound on any tv you’d like!" Friendly and wings? Suck it, Time Out! We walked back and returned the animals to the motor home. The game was starting so John hoofed it to Wing Dome again. Heike would meet him there after walking around and exploring Kirkland some more.

Once John had picked out a seat at the bar and the best tv to watch the game, he was informed that it was happy hour: all pints were just four bucks. Life was good. John requested a pint of the Hops Ninja IPA, a pitcher of water (Heike's orders - it was hot and we hadn't really ate or drank anything yet), and a menu. The beer was tasty, the water was refreshing, and the menu had a surprise. We had checked out the menu displayed in the window the first time we noticed Wing Dome. What wasn't in the window was touted on the front of the menu in John’s hands: the Seven Alarm Hot Wings Challenge. This was definitely a tantalizing development. The rules on the menu seemed pretty straight forward - seven wings, seven minutes. If you finish, it's free and you get a T-shirt; don't finish and it's $7.77 - cheaper than the ten bucks for a pound of their regular wings. Normally, given his propensity for capsaicin and spur of the moment eating challenges, this would be an automatic endeavor, but John wasn't sure. He hadn't been in the mood for spicy and was actually planning on trying some of the more unusual milder flavors. He'd have to think about it and wait for Heike before making a decision. In the mean time, he had an order of cheesy garlic wings and watched the first period.

When Heike arrived, she ordered a salad and a large basket of tater tots to share. Both were good, but John was still hungry. Wavering on the challenge, but intrigued by the super hot wings, we asked if it was possible to get the wings without doing the challenge. No, leisurely eating was not permitted. If John ordered the wings, he had seven minutes; what's left is taken away.

"Okay. Well, hockey's on intermission so I might as well do the challenge." John ordered it so nonchalantly that the bartender was taken off guard. Apparently people don't usually request the challenge as casually as if they were asking for a soda refill. John’s only concern: did they have the shirts in stock? He was still badgering the last bar where he conquered a hot wings contest for the shirt that hadn’t come but had been ‘put in the mail tomorrow’ three times now.

As is the norm, out came the 'waiver', which is really just a bit of showmanship combined with a way to ensure the customer knows the rules before they get in too deep. A couple of stipulations on the waiver weren't on the menu. One - no drinks, no other food, and no napkins while eating or until the seven minutes are compete; finish in one minute, you still have to wait six more before cleaning up or washing it down. Two - you have to eat all the wings, the lettuce they come on, and lick your fingers, hands, and the pate clean. That second one seemed very thorough, but, whatever; finish the sauce and have a piece of lettuce at the end to help cleanse the palette - no big deal, right? John was pretty confident. His last wing challenge in Minnesota was eight minutes for a dozen wings. He had done it under five, and those ones came out on fire. This was just seven wings. Even at 30 seconds apiece, there'd still be 3 1/2 minutes to eat a leaf of lettuce and lick the sauce. Piece of cake. Or not.

The wings came out. At least we assumed it was the wings. Almost no chicken was visible under the mass of thick, pasty sauce covering the plate. If they hadn't rung a bell and yelled 'fire in the hole', we would have though someone else had ordered chili. A slight chink in the confidence. Then, a closer inspection revealed that the underlying lettuce wasn’t a leaf; it was a bed of shredded lettuce enveloped by the sauce like ragout. The ol' confidence took another hit.

The bartender placed a large digital timer on the bar and set the seven minutes. Nothing left to it but to do it. He started the clock. It was go time!

Wing one: John's first realization was how saucy and messy those things were. The second realization was how hot those things were. Strikingly spicier than the Minnesota fire wings. But they were tasty, too. That was a good thing; delicious spicy challenges were always more enjoyable. The premier wing was done in a mere 20 seconds. John's eyes were watering and he had already started sweating.

Wing two: did we mention they were hot? The first tear from his watering eyes rolled down John's cheek. Done at the 50 second mark.

Wing three: so much sauce! Forget having to lick his fingers clean at the end; John had to lick them between each wing just to gain purchase and pick up the next. Heike the cheerleader was telling everyone watching the spectacle how John's "got this", how it's "no problem." She hadn’t tried these wings. Done at 1:25.

Wing four: John's eyes were streaming now, but he couldn’t wipe them. With so much sauce on his hands, it would be like getting pepper sprayed. It was hard to see, and his glasses were slipping down his nose from the sweat. Pit crew-woman Heike removed John's spectacles mid-wing. This one was done at 2:00 even. Right on pace.

Wing five. John's hands were starting to shake. His chewing slowed. Perhaps he shouldn't have had that other pound of wings, two beers, and a mountain of tater tots first. Done at 2:40.

Wing six. The sauce was everywhere. It covered John's hands and face. He looked like a baby the first time it gets to eat spaghetti, and the area around his mouth was burning. Usually John eats wings so cleanly that nothing gets on his face at all. But these were so saucy and messy that he couldn’t keep them from smearing his skin. Done at 3:15.

Wing seven. Almost over. At this point, John’s pace was definitely labored. The final wing takes 45 seconds - more than double the time of the first. But it went down and the wings were gone after 4 minutes on the nose.

The challenge was not yet won, however. Not even close. John looked at the plate, still covered in sauce-drenched shredded lettuce. So much, and no utensils allowed. The mound before him seemed like an unscalable red mountain. John considered quitting. He could pay the $7.77 and walk away. No T-shirt. No force-fed pile of fire-laden lettuce, either. But John couldn’t quit. Not after getting this far. Not with his number one supporter cheering him on. Slowly, he began scooping up the mixture with his fingers and shoveling it into his mouth. The tremor in John's hands was obvious now. But he soldiered on. Slowly, the lettuce disappeared.

Now John knew he had it. He methodically licked the sauce from each of his fingers. Then he carefully picked up the plate and licked that clean, too. Completely consumed at 5:55.

John had plenty of time to spare, but this was now time spent waiting. It was an interminable one minute and five seconds of sauce, sweat, and tears. At seven minutes, the timer alarm sounded and Heike plunged in with napkins. Napkins for John's hands. Napkins for John's face. Napkins for John's drenched head.

He was done! And he had the shirt to prove it. It wasn't easy, but the tasty flavor meant the experience wasn't horrible (or so John thought). Heike got an ice cream cone for them to share. John had a few licks but that was enough. After a few minutes, he wasn't doing bad at all. If it wasn't for the red irritation that the sauce had left around his mouth, you wouldn't even know what had just transpired.

Hockey was back on; the start of the second period. Heike had found a clue online about a nearby drugstore that carried the Honest Company products, so she left in search of her magical toothpaste. John stayed to watch the game. The excitement was over. The Seven Alarm Wing Dome Challenge now just an anecdote. Or not.

Heike was back an hour and a half later, just as team Canada prevailed on the ice. The drugstore she went to didn't have her paste, but another location to the south did - we just had to get there before it closed. We hurriedly rejoined Boo and Tino in the motor home and managed to arrive at our destination before the doors were locked. Heike happily procured their only two tubes of strawberry wonder paste.

We had succeeded in Seattle on both fronts. It was time to move on. Not surprisingly, John's stomach was starting to feel a little unsettled. He picked up a large cone from the Dairy Queen across the parking lot to cool things down before leaving. Perhaps he should have had more than cursory licks of the last one.

About an hour down the interstate we found a welcoming 24-hour Walmart to park for the night. After John quickly downed some Alka-Seltzer to address the nagging in his gut, we went inside to use the restroom and make some purchases to repay our lodging. There was still a little stomach rumble when we got back, so John chewed a few tums as well. Our quartet went to bed. It was 10:30pm.

At midnight John's insides jolted him awake. Something was not right in tummy town. As he attempted to get dressed to go use the Walmart bathroom again, a bomb went off inside his stomach. Excruciating pain collapsed John to his knees. It felt like the movie Alien - a vicious extra terrestrial was trying to burst out of his chest from the inside. Heike woke to find her husband lying on the floor, moaning.
"What's wrong?"

"I'm dying,” John professed, “Tell my parents I love them. No regrets! Viva la hot wings!"

"What's actually wrong?!"

"It feels like I'm going explode and throw up."

Heike grabbed a precautionary bucket from the cupboard and maneuvered it under John’s face. No retching, just more moans.

"I thought you had to throw up."

"I do, but I can't. I'm worried that if I try to push it out my mouth, I'm going to have an explosion out the other end!"
It was hard for Heike to remain compassionate while laughing at the same time.

No relief was coming to John doubled over, so Heike helped get him to his feet. Buuuuurrrrrpp!! Wait, that felt a little better. Belch! More relief. Belch! Less pain. Was it just gas? To Heike's dismay, John burped, and burped, and burped... until everything was fine again. Feeling a little silly, John composed himself, wiped the sweat off his body, and was finally able to get dressed. After an uneventful Walmart bathroom trip, and a few more disgusting-yet-settling belches, it was back to bed.

At 2:00am, the alien returned! But now John couldn't burp! It was like he was plugged, and the pressure was building. He tried to stay standing, but the pain was intense and he was sweating and shaking. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, buuuurrrpp!! Followed by dozens more. Relief. The pain disappeared, but John was frozen from the sweating. He got dressed and headed in for another bathroom visit, just to be safe. The walk into the store stirred up John's insides, including his bowels. He almost died on a Walmart toilet - what an obituary that would have made. John felt bad for the employee in the next stall, who was probably both alarmed and repulsed by the moaning, burping, and other noises emanating from beside him. The few late-night customers and employees gave some strange looks to the flushed, sweaty man walking bow legged out of the bathroom to the store exit.

John shuffled gingerly back to the motor home. Any discomfort was relieved by stopping and burping. He thought he had figured it out: don't move, don't lie down. John sat in the motor home's only armchair. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep this way, but at least he thought there wouldn’t be more pain, either. He thought wrong.

The rest of the night and through the following day, John weathered a vicious cycle: severe gas pain accompanied by heat, extreme sweating, and stripping naked; then, once physically able to, minutes of burping to ease the pain; then near hypothermia, mitigated by covering up with multiple blankets and several layers of clothing; then a 30 minute reprieve; repeat.

John was becoming exhausted. The more upright he kept himself, the better he felt and the longer between episodes. But it's difficult to sleep while attempting to remain perpendicular to the ground. Sitting straight required conscious effort, so Heike came up with a solution. She gathered all the seat cushions and pillows from the motor home and wedged them in around John’s head and body to prop him up completely. She had created a soft but strong exoskeleton that held her husband in place even if he completely relaxed. Around 2:00pm that afternoon, enveloped by foam and feathers, John finally fell asleep sitting straight up.

While John slept, Heike was both attentive and productive. She periodically checked inside John’s cocoon to ensure he was stable and still breathing, just in case. She took care of the animals, who really didn’t know what to make of their male person’s recent antics but knew their food and walks waited for no one. She also went for a run around the area, had a peaceful lunch while reading, and even documented John's ordeal in a picture. One man’s coma was another woman’s opportunity for a lovely afternoon.

Around 4:30, John woke from his nap. No gas, no pain, no sweating. All was good. The bladder-pressing exception being that he hadn't visited a restroom in nearly 15 hours. This is what woke him, and the urge was intensely acute. The antifreeze in the water tanks meant the motor home toilet was out of service. But John knew he couldn’t make it all the way inside the Walmart. Just making out of the RV without an accident would be fifty-fifty at best. The puke bucket became the pee bucket. John was barely able to stagger into the bathroom and place the bucket in front of him before the stream came. And when it came, it burned. It was a burning like John had never felt before. "I think the hot wings gave me gonorrhea!"

And that was it. The ordeal was done. Like it never happened. So what did happen?
John's theory: the wing sauce was so thick and there was so much of it that it simply wasn't digesting. Whenever he got prone or moved around, it coated the exit to his esophagus so no gas could escape.

Heike didn’t buy it. Why all the gas? Wings don't make John gassy. Her theory: it wasn't just the wings. John's 'preventative' measures of Alka-Seltzer and Tums placed too much base in John's gut with all that stomach acid and vinegary sauce. It caused the equivalent of a grade school science project volcano that just kept erupting.

Whatever actually happened, it disappeared as fast as it came. No more agony. No more discomfort. But maybe there should be no more food challenges, either. Or not…

Epilogue: The T-shirt John earned that day reads "I survived the Seven Alarm Wing Dome Challenge". Heike is considering embroidering one extra word between “I” and “survived”: “BARELY”. Truth be told, there was a point that day where John thought his grieving widow would have to return to Seattle - and give back the shirt.

John C. Hollinger is a ‘master-of-none’ who has worked in many industries throughout his life. Ophthalmology, the postal service, hotels, radio, television, and bars - to name a handful. John works to live but he lives to eat and travel. He loves experiencing new places and new dishes, and then documenting them for his family and friends. John, his wife Heike, their physically handicapped dog Boo, and their mercurial cat Tino, have visited every Canadian province, 49 states (only Alaska remains), and several regions of Mexico and the Caribbean. The Canuck family is perpetually on the move, having lived in nearly two dozen homes this millennium - not counting the motor home and hatchback which have carried them across North America. Food challenges, for spice and for size, are a hobby John doesn’t seek out but undertakes when accidentally discovered. And he has the collection of T-shirts to prove it.

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(Unless you type the author's name
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we won't know where to send it.)

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