Looks Like a Good Day to Die

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What it feels like when it rains in Seattle …

I saw a car the other day with a New Mexico license plate and I nudged Sara and said, “They’re going to hate it here!”

It’s an inside joke, a memory from the first weeks that we moved here from Albuquerque and still had New Mexico plates on our 1984 Volvo 240 DL wagon. We had pulled into the parking lot at the Fred Meyer in Monroe on one of those spectacular August days when the weather here is perfect, sunny and warm. As we closed our car doors someone said, “I see you’re from New Mexico.” “Yeah.” “Are you just visiting?” “No, we just moved here,” we replied. “Well,” the lady replied, “you’re going to hate it here.”

We knew what she was talking about: the rain. It’s what many people think about Seattle—that it rains all the time. But we arrived on August 5, 1997, and had a stretch of weather that I still wonder at: sunny and crystal clear and pleasant. Day after day I woke up and looked outside to clear blue skies and wondered if it would ever end. In fact, my Mom and Lee pulled into the area in their RV on November 3 it was still spectacular. We thought we had landed in Shangri-La. One of our first family outings was to Wallace Falls State Park, where Conrad and Louisa marveled at river flowing through a forest of massive trees draped in moss—a complete change from the dry creek beds and desiccated, spindly forests of the Sandias in Albuquerque. It rained that fall, eventually, but I never found it oppressive, and by the time the flowers started to pop out of the ground and it hit 60 degrees in February, I had fallen in love with living here.

It’s a good thing I did, because the next winter was the kind that tries a man’s soul. I’ve lived in nearly a dozen states and in every one of them, I’ve lived through rainy days. In some states, you know rain is a passing thing, nearly guaranteed to be over in an hour; in other states, rain may pour down in buckets, then steady out for a whole day, but you know it will pass. But here in the Pacific Northwest, when the rains start, I sometimes wonder if we’ve entered a dark tunnel that has no end, if this will be the time that the rains start and never, ever stop, trapping us in a steel-gray sodden hell.

If you’re not from here, you’ll think I exaggerate. But you never lived through the winter of 1998/99–our second year here—when the rains started on November 1 and for 90 straight days, they did not let up.* If you’ve never lived through a stretch of weather like this, it’s hard to explain quite what it feels like. For a while, early on, I laughed at waking to another day of rain: it was amusing, a novelty, something to chuckle about. After a month, all laughter stopped.

When it rains this long, and especially when it rains this long at the time of year when the days are getting shorter and shorter anyway, you start to feel the rain deep in your bones, deep in your soul. The clouds crowd overhead, heavy and thick and unbroken, gray giving way to deeper gray. Some days I swore the clouds squatted just above us, and would have smothered us but for the trees holding them off. The rain, the constant rain, varied in intensity: some days it was a light enveloping mist, what I’ve since learned to call a “dry rain,” because if you dress properly you can actually work out in the yard in it. But other days, days when a Pineapple Express system rolled in off the Pacific, we felt like we were trapped in a ship at sea, the rain lashing the side of the house and the wind gusting and howling, rattling our old single pane windows in their frames. On days like this there’s so little light you can look outside at noon and wonder if it’s dusk. 

It was on a day like this, with me standing in a conference room with a co-worker, looking out into the gloomy early afternoon, when I first said: “It looks like a good day for a murder.” We locked eyes and I could see that he was concerned and maybe just a bit alarmed. He must have wondered if my thoughts were darker than he first suspected. They weren’t, don’t worry: I harbor no hostility toward others, but dark days like these felt (and feel today) like a scene in a movie, a scene where someone might be broken by this weather, broken enough to kill a man and drag the body into a rain-filled ditch.

Some years ago, a body lay in the deep ditch alongside Marsh Road, lay there long enough that the body started to stink. We smelled it for several days as we drove over the Snohomish River bridge and south across the valley, remarking to each other that a deer must have died nearby. I learned that a lone motorcyclist had disappeared not long before: his family reported him missing and a search went up. Someone put two and two together and found that he had gone off the road and died in the deep ditch. No one had seen him plunge off the road; no one saw him as they passed by. I hope he died quickly and didn’t lay there for long, listening to cars whooshing by nearby, hoping someone would see him. This terrible accident happened in the middle of the summer, but to me it always seemed like it fit better in the middle of one of our long, rainy spells. Now, when it’s dark and miserable, I say “It looks like a good day to die,” and this is what I picture.

This is where my mind goes when the rains come, not on the first day of rain but after a few days, just enough that I can imagine that we’re starting into another one of those spells. Just last year, 2020, we set a record when rain fell every day of the month of January, followed by more, heavier rain in February. Our basement flooded; I spent hours moving stuff around, up on blocks and out of the wet. 

I amuse myself with these dark thoughts, I lean into them and feel their darkness. Then I sit by the fire, I read a good book, and I think about how good it will feel for the summer to return. The rainy spells never last forever—though sometimes perhaps just a bit too long.

*This is how I remember it, and apparently I am not alone in that memory, though a weather researcher actually determined that while it was not 90 days in a row it was one of the rainiest stretches on record. See https://www.glenallenweather.com/ex9/RainStreak.pdf. KOMO meteorologist Scott Sistek notes on his blog that the official streak of rainy days is actually just 33 days—easily topping Miami’s 20, Anchorage’s 17, and San Francisco’s 17.

Discovering Vetucchio (aka, Riverview Wildlife Refuge)

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I’m no fan of this pandemic but without it, there would be no Vetucchio. There would be no magical land of early morning fog, no kaleidoscope of birds, no month-long daily binge on blackberries, no daily escape from the routine to this wonderful landscape just down the street from my house.

Let me clear with you: Vetucchio didn’t exist before the pandemic … or at least it didn’t exist as Vetucchio. It’s not that it wasn’t there. Hell, I had even been there–it’s just that I rarely paid much attention to it. I’ve lived in my house since 1998. Once, when the kids were young, we walked across the old treatment ponds during a dry summer, as if it was just a field of tall grass. In fact, it was the location of years worth of “unscreened biosolids” that had been deposited in the lagoon from approximately 1958 to 1995, years in which this site had been used as the city’s very old-school wastewater treatment facility. We walked all the way across to the cement spillway, the overflow point that allowed raw sewage to drain out into the Snohomish River if the waters got too high.

Then the city was forced to shut it down and pump their effluence west to Everett, after the first stage of treatment had been completed in the newly built treatment facility. Local birdwatchers started to patrol the periphery, and eventually convinced the city to support making all the area around the treatment ponds into a wildlife refuge with walking trails. Their master plan, submitted to the city in 2013, called for the creation of the Riverview Wildlife Refuge, and the signs you see pictured here date to 2014. 

You would have thought that the designation as a wildlife refuge would have caught my attention. My friend Bill Fulton, who was part of the committee that pushed for the refuge, told me how much he liked walking there, and the access points, both of them, were literally just down the street from my house. And yet, we rarely if ever walked there. Sara and I had our 4-mile loop, our 3-mile loop that cut across the back of Freshman Campus, hell, I think we even had the walk we now call Pilchuck Flats. But the refuge never captured our interest. I always viewed it as a kind of marginal re-use of city land, blighted by the proximity of the city yard, the Highway 9 bridge passing overhead, the treatment plant. For more than 20 years, I walked my town nearly daily, and yet I was virtually a stranger to this location.

I can’t pinpoint the day I discovered Vetucchio, but I can triangulate it within a set of conditions that came into existence somewhere between March 7–when MediaPRO employees were directed to start working from home—and my first photographs of Sara and I walking toward Vetucchio on May 7.

It was this peculiar mix of conditions that created Vetucchio: conditions that opened my eyes and my mind to seeing the world in new ways. The first month or so of the pandemic shutdown was what I call the “walking days,” days when suddenly the streets were filled with walkers: middle aged couples, families, teenagers, all strolling out in the spring sunshine in the middle of the day, often in the middle of the street. The pandemic was young and new to all of us; there were no masks. It was a big adventure and we all smiled and said hello. Sigh! 

I can’t pinpoint the day, but I can pinpoint the moment—the moment my mind opened to seeing the world differently, to slowing down and digging the beauty that was in front of me, instead of being distracted and sucked along in the vortex/slipstream of work and email and meetings, the combined energy of a group of people working toward a common objective, an objective that had once mattered a lot to me but now, well, not as much.

First, there was the pandemic. It sent us all home, wiping out in one fell swoop not just the vast time suck that was the commute and its associated preparations—showering, eating—but also the bounded time of “office hours,” even those as flexible as mine. Suddenly you could start and end work whenever, and that meant you could also find holes in your day when, if you looked outside and the sun was shining, you could dash out for a quick walk.

Second, there was the birding. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about birding prior to April 24th. Hell, I was actively dismissive, ridiculing the obsession with those who obsessively identified and named all the birds they saw. If anyone drew my attention to a bird, I’d opine: “There are really only four kinds of birds: killing birds, cool birds, water birds, and the rest are all little brown dicky birds.” Thus, I thought , I put in their place those folks who paid too much attention to things that didn’t matter. (I was wrong.)

Then, on April 24th, Jeremy Schwartz gave his bird presentation to the company. We were, by this point, six weeks into working from home. I suspect we were all just beginning to recognize that we missed interacting with our co-workers, or at least interacting with them in ways that didn’t involve the prison of the work Zoom meeting. So Lauren, our office manager, gamely arranged some Zoom lunches for people to share their interests, and sincere, earnest Jeremy stepped up to give a talk about birds, a group version of his ever-present offer to go out on a bird walk at lunch, back when we were all in the office and could do such a thing.

I’ll write more about birding at some time–about the permission it gave me to slow down and look more closely–but for now, suffice to say that the moment I began to pay attention to birds, Vetucchio became a magnet for my attention. The city publishes a brief birding guide to the refuge on its website.

Third, there was the permission I granted myself to think differently, for it was right around this time that I opened my mind to thinking differently about work, thanks to giving up my operational duties at MediaPRO, reducing my load to half-time, and taking up the work of writing a regular blog for the company and supporting our marketing efforts as the Chief Evangelist. This major shift in my worklife meant I allowed myself the opportunity to think about my mental space differently, to open it up to purposes other than the growth of the business and solving the problems that the business presented. Granting myself permission was crucial, because it was purely a cage I had put myself in. It’s as if I opened the door to a cage that had never even been locked and all I had to do was push open the door. Was this the most important condition of all? It will take me some time to figure that one out!

So there it was: the pandemic and the way the whole world shifted, the birding, and this sudden openness of mind, and in that moment I walked into what has become Vetucchio. Floating in that moment, I awakened to the beauty of the place: to the sound of the Common Yellowthroat singing in the marsh, to the perfect perspective of the lane stretching along the wetland, to the sight of Mt. Index and Persis beyond the bridge. It roused the romantic in me, the guy who exclaims “I dig beauty” whenever I am struck by how beautiful the world is (quoting a line from the Stuart Dybek story, “Blight,” from The Coast of Chicago.)

How could this beautiful place not have a beautiful name? I asked. So I sought one, trying the sound of various words in my mouth as I walked about, remembering the feel of the Italian hilltop towns along the Amalfi coast: Ravello, Positano, Sorrento. And I stumbled upon—which is to say made up—Vetucchio, and it’s now my name for this combination of wetlands and river and stretching lane, fragrant with blackberries, trilling with birdsong. And I made up the spelling too, using conventions that lean Italian: there is a real place, Verucchio, a comune in Italy, and an Italian family that runs Vertuccio Farms, outside of Mesa, AZ, but as best I can tell there is no other Vetucchio. It is one of a kind.

I’ll end this with a few of my favorite pictures of Vetucchio. You can be sure there will be more.