What You Go Up, You’ve Got to Come Down

Or, How I Ruined My Shoulders on Whitehorse Mountain

When I think back on all the hikes I’ve done over the years, there are a few that stand out:

The first summit of Mt. Baker, when we were too excited to sleep; finally making it up Glacier Peak, after bailing out on multiple earlier attempts due to the weather turning to shit; John, Nick, and I stuck on Sperry Peak, where we took the wrong route and found ourselves on a high ledge, choosing between two bad options—keep going up, or try going down; my fall on Merchant Peak.

Dawn as we prepare to go up the Roman Wall on Mt. Baker

Those last two are the closest I’ve come to … well, I don’t want to be melodramatic and call it “death,” because who knows, but certainly the closest I’ve come to serious injury. There’s a good story about all of these hikes.

Whitehorse

The funny thing is, the climb on which I had my most serious injury goes down in my mind as one of my absolute favorites: Whitehorse Mountain, which John and I climbed on May 23, 2009, where I ended up tearing the rotator cuff on both shoulders and the labrum on the left. My shoulders have never been the same since—but this story isn’t about my shoulders.

When John and I set out that May morning, we didn’t really expect to get to the summit. We were out for a “conditioner,” just something to give our legs a workout without going up Pilchuck for the umpteenth time. When you call something a “conditioner,” it kind of lowers your expectations; we expected to get to Lone Tree Pass for sure, maybe High Pass, but not the summit. Since I’m expecting you’re going to go out and do this soon, here are just a couple route description links: WTA and Mountaineers.) But then we got going, and everything just kept going our way: we hit snow early and the snow quality down low was not bad (meaning, not too wet and slushy), and then as we got to the back side of the ridge and started up again, a group ahead of us left such a great boot path that it made our work “easy” (watch the video to see why I put easy in quotes).

Soon enough we had reached the second, higher ridge (High Pass) and were looking at the summit and we said, hell, why not. It was just one of those blue-sky days where the snow was beautiful and our legs felt good, like we could go on forever. It wasn’t until we got to the bottom of the last stretch to the summit that we understood why people roped up. Damn, it was steep! But it wasn’t far and there was so much snow and we felt good so, why not? And off we went, digging in with the ice axe, kicking in hard with our crampons, until we made the summit.

Up top, we met another group, four or five climbers who had roped up. And we started to talk about the difficulty of getting down.

The Downclimb

One of the things that you learn when you start stretching your climbing skills is that it’s easier going up than going down. I say you learn this, but really, it’s something the mountains teach you. Facing the mountain, looking into it, you keep your feet planted beneath you and you probe with your hands and your eyes going up. You can easily do more than you should. But head down the same path and it’s a whole different ballgame. Suddenly you’re facing the void, keenly aware of the depths beneath you—the space you could fall into and through. It’s harder to see the footholds, and you can’t probe with your feet the same way. Gravity wants to pull you forward. It can be fucking scary. So over time you learn that you never want to go up something you don’t want to come down. So you calibrate in your mind, how will this be going down? And if you’re smart, you find a route that will provide a safe return.

We did this little calibration on Whitehorse and we concluded that we could make it down. In truth, I’d probably make the same decision today. 

As we prepared to head down, the folks who had rope offered that we could use their rope on the downclimb. I liked that idea; John preferred to turn his face into the mountain and downclimb, kicking steps and using his axe. Turns out his was the better decision.

I didn’t have a climbing harness, so I decided to do an “arm rappel.” I had never done this before so I made it up and it went like this: I held the top end of the rope in my right hand, looped the rope around my back, and then held the bottom end of the rope in my left hand, holding enough tension that I could kind of lean back into the rope. The idea was I’d kind of “bounce” my way down the steepest part of the mountain this way, until the slope started to mellow and I could get off the rope. It sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But given the steepness of the pitch it wasn’t easy at all. I’d feed myself some slack, reset the rope, then drop backward—fifty or a hundred times, jerking myself to a stop, taking the full weight of my body onto my shoulders. I felt a bit like a puppet, holding to the strings of some cruel puppet master who kept dropping me and jerking me to a stop. (Experienced climbers will observe that there are techniques to make an arm rappel easier, the Dülfersitz rappel being the most common. What can I say? I didn’t know.)

But soon enough the slope let up, and I left the rope, waving to my friends at the top, calling out “thank you.” As I watched John cautiously, methodically downclimb the same slope–facing the mountain, kicking in, planting his axe–I rubbed the shoulders I had just thrashed. They hurt! But what was I going to do: we had seven miles and 7,000 vertical to hike out, some of it in steep snow. We packed up our ice axes, lengthened our poles, and off we went. It was a spectacular climb, such a worthy summit, and every time I see Whitehorse I remember it fondly.

But my shoulders have never been the same. In 12 years, I’ve had two surgeries, stem cell injections, multiple round of physical therapy … and still, a couple tough yoga poses and I’m back into full-on pain, my shoulders aching with any rotation.

One great climb; years of aching shoulders. Still, I’d do Whitehorse again, if any of the Caribunkle Boys are up for it.

Playing the Mask Game

I’m not one of those anti-mask people, but I sure as hell hate wearing one. I hate the way it makes my glasses fog up, I hate the smell of my breath sometimes, I hate how hot it is on a hot day. But mostly I hate the way it makes us all act.

My first mask, fashioned from a pair of underwear

From nearly the moment we were first asked to start wearing masks, we (that is, society) started playing the mask game. Now, I’m not talking about the mask game where one person wears a mask to show the world that they believe in science and another person refuses a mask because they think this whole virus thing is a hoax . I hate that game, I hate it a lot, but that’s a little bit of a different game, in my mind: that’s the truth game, the one where one person has got a different set of facts that they’re going to insist on and up yours if you don’t agree. In that version of the mask game, wearing a mask is a political and ideological statement. That mask game is just a reflection of how polarized we are and it mostly just makes me sad, but we don’t play that version of the mask game too much out here in Western Washington. 

In the mask game that we play out here, we all believe the science that says that wearing masks is a great way to limit the spread of the virus—we’re just not quite sure how strict we should be about it, and that ends up making us crazy. 

On the one hand you’ve got the person who is never going to leave the house without their mask, so you see them walking out of their house (alone) with their mask on, hoping into their car and driving around (alone) with their mask on. What’s going through their mind, I wonder? Are they so deathly afraid of catching the virus that they use the mask to ward off any chance? (I feel a little sad they live in this kind of fear.) Are they, like a friend of mine, trying to make a statement, to “normalize” mask-wearing so that no one ever feels self-conscious about wearing a mask because they see it so often? (I marvel that he feels so responsible for the actions and feelings of others and so capable of influencing them.) Or have they grown so sick of taking a mask on and off, up and down, that they just say to hell with it and leave it on? (This one kind of makes sense to me!)

On the other hand, you’ve got those folks who kind of believe the scientific rationale behind wearing a mask, but mostly wear one out of the desire to confirm to social norms. Some of these folks are likely just one step from being anti-maskers: they’re the ones who pull the bandanna up over their mouth but don’t bother to cover their nose, or who have a ratty old blue mask hung from one ear, and they pull it over their mouth only when asked or when it becomes odious not to. They are only wearing a mask because they have to; you can see it in their eyes.

And then you have the great majority who carry a mask with them at all times and really do keep it in place whenever they are in close proximity to others. It’s not so bad, after all, and if it prevents the spread of illness, how can you really argue against that?

But even these folks (this group includes me) get confused once they step foot into the great outdoors and there’s nowhere that this confusion has been more obvious to me than on the hiking trails. Early on in the pandemic, say June or July, I’d go out hiking and I’d rarely see anyone with a mask. Maybe at the trailhead, but once out on the trail, the general attitude (which I absolutely held) was hey, we’re outside, we’re spread apart, there is ample air flow: no mask needed.

But as the summer wore on, that started to change: more and more, I’d see people carrying masks, and as you approached each other on the trailhead, they’d go through this dance of “masking up” and then speeding past, barely acknowledging me. The numbers of people prepared to do the mask dance grew and grew, and at some point I kept a mask ready to do the dance as well. Honestly, I still believe that fresh air and distance were ample protection, but I didn’t want to bum people out. If we were on a tight trail or couldn’t give enough space, I played the mask game.

The mask game hurt a little bit, I have to admit. One of the things I like most out on a hike is a hearty hello, a sharing of route conditions, maybe a story about what you’d seen, etc. (Now, to be fair, I only really enjoy this kind of exchange on little-used trails, which are most of the trails I go on. On the few times I was on really popular trails, I do my best to avoid people. Truth is, I hate people, or least the ones who like to be around a lot of other people.) Once people masked up, though, they became far less likely to say hello. They literally and figuratively kept their distance. One couple with children made a big production of standing off the trail and turning their backs to me as we passed. Well, good day to you too!

The highlight of my hiking summer was this arduous hike Sara and I took up Mt. Baldy in the Olympics. The first mile was an ass-kicker, as we ascended 2000 vertical feet in less than a mile, but then we got up into the open meadows and had a spectacular time on the summit all by ourselves. We never saw a soul the entire day—an absolute rarity in the Pacific Northwest. And that meant we never once had to play the mask game. 

For too long I have rued the mask game, calling it “pandemic theater” and just generally lamenting the distance that it put between people, not to mention the inconvenience. But today, walking around our favorite spot up at Deception Pass, I landed on a idea that made it kind of fun. I called it the “I’m not sharing my breath” game. As we saw people coming I’d say to Sara, “I’m not sharing my breath with them” and I’d pull up my mask, but smile and give them a big hello.

Damn, I’m sure looking forward to getting back to normal.

Looks Like a Good Day to Die

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.

2020: The Year of Paying Attention

This post is akin to my “Christmas letter” and it’s primarily intended for friends and family.

The year began normally enough, with business travel. Two trips to San Francisco for work conferences and then four days of product management training in Salt Lake City. I felt like I was off to a roaring start, but Sara traveled more, back and forth to Atlanta and other cities for her consulting business. Work was an endless hurtle forward.

And then, at the tail end of February, we had a brief joyful jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, where the only cloud on the horizon was the specter of this odd virus that seemed to be spreading around the world, starting in the U.S. at a nursing home not far from my work. I recall the slight pall of paranoia that clouded the plane as we returned home from Phoenix: lots of empty seats; I coughed and drew an accusatory stare from the couple across the aisle.

But in a matter of days, it got all too real: Back at work on March 4, we (the executive team) advised employees who felt nervous about coming to work to feel free to work from home, then just two days later, on March 6, we followed the lead of the big tech companies nearby (Amazon, Microsoft, others) and “strongly encouraged” all employees to start working from home. And with that, 2020 really began. 

I think of March 6 as the day that divides my old life from my new life, because I’ve not been back to the office since. The old life looked like this: chase work all week, don’t slow down, regroup on Friday night, and have fun until it all starts again on Monday. 

Ah, but this new life! No more commute, comfy clothes constantly, and there’s my lovely wife every day and we can go for walks to Vetucchio and make meals and sit by the fire at night. Time seemed to slow right down, and suddenly I began paying attention to things that had rushed by before: birds singing in the trees, bread to bake, a lawn to mow, music to listen to. In the 2020 that started in March, someone turned down the volume and turned up all the colors.

I first recognized that 2020 was rewiring my brain as I mowed my lawn with my new battery-powered mower. Without the noise and exhaust fumes, lawn mowing became a banquet of sensory delights: the smell of the grass, the sound of birds singing, the patterns of straight lines I drew across our newly-seeded lawn, the smell of the lavender. I mowed in a goofy meditative trance, pausing to wave to neighbors walking by, moving slowly, slowly, because I wanted straight lines and because mowing had become a way of expressing love for this home where I was now spending so much time. Why rush through something that brings so much pleasure?

It wasn’t the logic of slowing down that caused our remodel to linger so long into 2020. We started this remodel* on June 14 of 2019 but a hiccup here and there–earth to be moved, walls to be painted–pushed the last steps so late into the year that they just had to wait till spring, but then spring came and the ‘rona kept all contractors from finishing their work, so completion dragged on into the middle of the summer and it wasn’t until September that we finally put the finishing touches on with the front porch mosaic project. (In truth, we may have intimidated ourselves a little bit with the complexity we had designed in–there are 503 pieces of slate tile involved, and I had to cut every one of them–but it truly is the crowning touch on the project.) In the midst of this long project, I (finally) realized that when it comes to matters of aesthetics and design, I should just shut the hell up and let Sara call the shots, because her eye for design just knocks my socks off. When I mow the lawn and trim the lavender, it’s just me doing my part to celebrate Sara’s wonderful vision for this place. 

*Note the term “this remodel,” because this was the third major remodel we have undertaken on this house since we bought it in 1998 and it’s intended to be the last, not counting minor stuff that we’ll never stop doing. We determined that with this remodel, we’d have completed the house in a form that we could then live in forever. Forever! Ha!

Three months into the pandemic, it felt a bit like the walls were closing in, so we planned an escape down to an AirBnB on the Washington side of the river in the Columbia Gorge. What an escape it was: this big airy house had a wall of windows that looked south to Mt. Hood, and it sat alone on the edge of an orchard. The kids came down too and we relished the new sights and the chance to pretend for just a little while that we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

A couple months later, Sara and I escaped on our own, celebrating 30 years of marriage at an AirBNB out near Sequim, where we spent four days biking, hiking, eating–but mostly just digging each other’s company. It feels like we’ve got this whole loving each other thing pretty well dialed in.

It’s not like I discovered my need for speed this year, but I sure as hell indulged it. I got my new car—my first real sports car—in mid 2019, but other than a few autocross days I didn’t really lean in on what it could do until this summer. The moment the BMW CCA offered a track day at Pacific Raceways, I jumped at the chance to get my M2 out on the track. I had flogged other people’s cars on a track before but never my own, so I eased into it slowly, adding speed here, more brakes there, slowly, incrementally finding the limits–and finding them well beyond my own capacity. It was up to me to build the skill and the courage to go faster, and this became the immensely rewarding mental challenge of the summer and early fall. I did several more track days, burning through a set of tires and pushing my OEM brake pads well past their limits. I started making plans for some 2021 modifications–R-rated tires and track pads–that would allow me to go even faster … but then this opportunity came up. For a guy who had been reading about tracks all his life, the chance to drive my car at Laguna Seca was simply too good to pass up, so I accelerated my planned modifications and hauled my ass down I5 to Monterey to see what I could do. I wrote about this quite a bit, so if you’re a car nut, check out those links above.

After a couple years of pretty avid running, I hit a bit of a snag in 2019 when I ripped the muscles in my lower abdomen. After trying multiple courses of PT and steroid injection, I hit the summer of 2020 resigned to the fact that I’d likely need surgery to fix the issue—but I said to my doc, let me just get through the summer hiking season (as hiking didn’t seem to exacerbate the tear very much) and then maybe we could address the issue in the fall or winter. Well holy shit, it’s like I opened the door on the best hiking season ever! For a bunch of reasons—the injury, craving variety, wanting to hike where we wouldn’t run into a bunch of people so we wouldn’t have to play this stupid pandemic theater mime-show of “oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask even though I’m out in the wilderness”—I summited a bunch of new mountains and that was just a blast. Among the highlights: Alta Mountain with Jeff Morgenroth; turning around just short of the summit Hibox Mountain with Louisa, and then nearly getting lost in the woods, great learning experiences both; Silver Mountain with Julien Duplant; White Chuck with Louisa, Sam, and John Tucker, which was by far the most scenic hike of the year; and an anniversary vacation hike to Mt. Baldy with Sara where we never saw another soul the entire time (this never happens, never). On Baldy, realizing that we had the place to ourselves, I stripped bare-ass naked just to feel the air on my skin. I’ll spare you the pictures.

Conrad and Abbie moved in together on July 18 to a terrific spot overlooking the city, and they are already remaking the place in their tasteful image. It sure is nice to see him so happy with his delightful girlfriend. And he also got a new job at AWS. Good job son.

Sam and Lou got a puppy: Grover P. Underfoot. In their characteristic way, they carefully planned how they would train him and it worked: our grand-puppy is a delight. Lou is mid-way through her PhD, tending her kidney cells in the lab, and she also got a new part-time gig working as an analyst for a biotech VC firm in Seattle. And Sam is living his dream as a firefighter for the City of Tacoma. 

Late in the year, Sara took the pedal off the gas on her consulting work and started painting more. Her paintings dry on a rail in my office, which is awesome for me, her biggest fan.

That’s what this year felt like to me. How was it for you?

Discovering Vetucchio (aka, Riverview Wildlife Refuge)

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.

I Ordered a Golf R; I Ended Up in an M2

When Volkswagen announced it’s Spektrum color program for the Golf R for deliveries in 2019, I was pumped. I had always lusted after the hottest of the hot hatches, but I didn’t like the standard VW blue offered for the R—it was too purple for my tastes. I wanted one of the older blues, and when I saw I could order the Deep Blue Pearl (which I remembered from the 2004 R32), I happily put down my $1000 deposit with my local dealer and started to anticipate the day it would arrive. I thought I was waiting for my dream car.

2004 R32 in Deep Blue Pearl

Anticipating the delivery of a car is kind of fun. You get on these car forums and listen to the rumors and then real stories, with pictures, about people taking delivery. By early spring 2019, people were regularly reporting on getting their cars … but none in Deep Blue Pearl. I called Justin at Pignataro—okay, I may have called him every several weeks—to see if he could give me any timeline on when my car would arrive. And he couldn’t. He seemed to have no more visibility into it than I did. By early June, I was chomping at the bit. 

And then, on June 14, a call from Justin. I figured the car had arrived. But when he said, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news,” I kind of knew which news it was going to be for me. Sure enough: “The good news is I can have you in a Golf R next week.” And then: “The bad news is, VW decided not to make all the Spektrum colors it had originally anticipated, but I can get you in one in Welch’s Grape Soda [note: my name, not the official VW name] or X [some other color I didn’t give a shit about].” 

Well fuck.

All this trouble to put in the special order, all this anticipation for a car that I’d been kind of longing for ever since I owned my first VW, a 1977 Rabbit, that I just adored. I told him I’d need a day to think about it.

1977 Rabbit, not mine, but looks just like it. I loved that car!

And then I drove straight down to the BMW dealership. You see, I was in a lease on a 428ix Gran Coupe, and my lease was up in several weeks. It was a pleasant enough car, but underpowered, maybe a tad too big, and just a little sedate. I had planned to turn the car in but now … I might as well see what was available.

The salesman heard what I was after and correctly pointed me to the M235i (I think, or was it the 240 by this point?). I was sold and we sat down to start the paperwork when the salesman said—and here’s where the clouds part and the ray of light shoots across the landscape and the angels start to sing—“Oh, before we do this, I just realized that we got an M2 in today and the guy decided not to take it, so that’s also available.” 

At this point my memory gets a little funky. I’m pretty sure I tried to play it cool. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say, “The M2! The M2! The car I drove down at the M Driving School last year and swore that if it ever came available I had to have it,” only to be told that the waiting list for the car was two years long and the best I could hope for is that it might be my lucky day to walk into the dealership on the day someone who ordered one decided not to take delivery. That M2? Yeah, okay, I suppose I could take a look.

It was fresh off the truck, the protective padding all over the car, only a few sections of the body even visible. It was in Long Beach Blue, 6 speed manual, my dream configuration on my dream car. Honestly, it had a bunch of options I wouldn’t have chosen: the sun roof or the executive package that lifted the speed limiter and threw in a day at the M School. But I didn’t get to choose this car. It chose me.

I could bore you with more details: how my wife, who was there with me, simply said: “It’s your dream car, you’ve got to do it”; how we had to register it in her name because I’d forgotten my driver’s license; how we stopped down at the local Bank of America to grab a $10,000 cash down payment. 

All I know is that a little while later, we were leaving the lot, me grinning ear to ear, driving my dream car. And I’ve been digging it ever since.

Day 1 in my new car

Laguna Seca Part 4: A Tale of Two Road Trips

Looking back on my planning for this trip, I can see that I may have overthought it a bit. But hey, give me a break: I was excited and maybe a little scared too, scared that after committing all this money and time I’d end up turning back in a chain-up zone before Siskiyou Pass, an early snow falling all around me. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Day 1: Snohomish to Redding

For the way down, I chose Plan A: fast and direct.

It wasn’t pretty, and for the first several hours—hell, make it six hours—it didn’t feel like a road trip at all. It felt like just another drive: rain lashed the car as I drove down 405 and while the rain let up south of Olympia, the boredom didn’t. This was all familiar territory and I quickly decided that you can’t really get that road trip sensation when you’ve been down a stretch of road too many times (there’s a lesson in that, I’m sure).

The boredom let up a little when I made a pit stop in Salem to meet up with a high school buddy, Darin Wilson, who I last saw when I was 18 years old, as best we could figure. We walked just long enough to unlock my hips and laugh at the parallel paths that had taken us from Romeo, Michigan, out to the West. He wasn’t going back either. His wife, Kristin, who I’ve never met, sent along some peanut butter cookies and not just a few, a whole damned cooling rack of them. I wish I had a picture when Darin opened his back door and there were the cookies, cooling on the rack. They lasted me until the morning of day two on the track, I swear.

And on I went south of Salem, still just a familiar drive until somewhere between Roseburg and Grants Pass, something started to change. Was it the fact that around every corner there was something new, or was the numbness in my butt and hips somehow triggering me into that quasi-hypnotic state that signaled my drive had turned into a road trip? All I know is that I found myself slipping into a kind of trance state, looking far down the road to navigate the Tetris path between semis and clueless Prius drivers, and digging the beauty of the mountains. There was Mt. Shasta, beautiful even from the rest stops where I shot these pics, and at last I rolled into Redding, where I had picked a hotel because it looked funky (and it was, but only a little, and maybe that was just funky enough).

As I closed on Redding, I wished I didn’t have to stop. I had finally hit it, that state of mind called road trip. After about mile 500, I felt like I had slipped into the zone, and that I could just keep going, floating onward into the night, the miles clicking by. It felt like I had slipped the clutches of gravity and was just floating …

It reminded of the road trip Sara and I took in my blue Chevy Malibu in the summer of 1986. Already two or three days into our trip heading west from Michigan, we had woken up in Wyoming at a campground called Crazy Woman Green Trees and had decided it was time to finish the trip. We pressed on 1100 miles in one long day, winding down through Lolo Pass in Montana, into Lewiston, Idaho, and then up the Lewiston grade for the final stretch to reach my friend’s house in Palouse, Washington, not far north of WSU, where Sara was joining me to start our lives together. By the time we got north of Lewiston it was late at night, after 11 PM, and as we turned off the highway onto the secondary road that led to Palouse we realized just how black the night had gotten. There are two qualities to the roads through the Palouse: they are curvy as hell, winding through the flowing hills, and they are as black as the basalt they are made from, the basalt that lays beneath the soil that makes the Palouse one of the richest wheat farming regions in the world.

Had I been well rested, I would have welcomed the curvy black roads. But I was nearly losing my mind with fatigue, and the only thing that kept me going was knowing we only had 30, 20, 10 more miles to go, that and Sara poking my red dot. That was as close as I’ve ever come to hallucinating while driving (save for that time in Kansas City when the shrooms kicked in too soon). But we made it, pulling in to stay the night in the upstairs bedroom of my hippie friend Lisa’s farmhouse. We went up the ladder to our room and pulled back the covers to see an old, dried-up cat shit sitting black on the white sheets. It was an omen, I see in hindsight. We brushed it aside and hopped in bed. That’s how tired we were.

Day 2: Redding to Monterey

I had knocked off two-thirds of the journey getting to Redding, so day two was always going to be a breeze. There was just one little wrinkle. Somewhere in the 300+ miles I had left I needed to figure out a spot to do a tire swap. I left Snohomish on my winter tires (Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4s, for you car guys), but I was packing a new set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71Rs in the back seat, and I knew that if those brand-new tires were going to be ready to hit the track Saturday morning, I needed to get a few miles on them first. So I pulled over into the Dunnigan Southbound Rest Area at 9:55 AM, found a flat spot, and prepared to execute my first ever tire swap.

I’ve got to give it to my friend Ben Crowell for the inspiration. Ben and I met at a BMW CCA track day out at Pacific Raceways, where we chased each other happily round and round the track, trading leads as one or the other of us were feeling faster. He was in a 2018 M3 Competition, and we got to talking between sessions about mods he had made to his car: better brake pads, better tires, etc. The more Ben described it, the more I felt like I could do that too. I’m a relatively handy guy–there’s not a thing in my house I won’t try to take apart and fix before I call somebody else–so why should I not figure out how to do the brakes and the tire swaps on my car?

What do you picture when you imagine some guy jacking up his car in a rest area? I imagined some old beater car, the back seat full of clothes and sleeping bags and trash, and some derelict dude standing there wondering how the hell he was going to move his car another inch. So that’s kind of how I thought the world must be looking at me, wondering what kind of crazy shit I was going through to be putting my Bimmer up on jack stands. I fully expected someone to say something, anything, but despite a steady stream of motorists, nobody said a damned word. Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t COVID, I don’t know.

It was smooth sailing from that point on though, all the way down into the Bay Area and around San Jose and into Monterey. I got there in time to enjoy a quick trip out to Point Lobos before joining up with the Avants gang for In-N-Out Burger and a drink before an early bedtime. We had some driving to do, and you can catch that in my next blog post. But I had a road trip back too, and this time I was taking the scenic route.

The Return Trip

There was no reason not to take the scenic route home, now that the Laguna Seca driving was done. And so I did: up Route 1 through Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay with a brief, traffic-heavy dip into the city before hopping across the Golden Gate Bridge and then shooting north along Highway 101, through Santa Rosa (hi John and Linda) and with a brief stop at a beach in Eureka before getting in early to Crescent City … and boy was I glad I did.

You don’t think about Northern California as being remote, but wow, once you get north of Santa Rosa there’s all kinds of nothing for miles and miles, and by the time you get to Crescent City it could be the end of the world. There’s not much there … except a roadside art gallery and fine slice of beach that allowed me to watch some surfers enjoy the sunset before the sun dipped into the sea. There’s not much else to say: I drove and I dug beauty. Here’s some of it:

For the final day of my little adventure, I knew what awaited: 80 miles of curvy roads linking Crescent City to Grants Pass, Oregon, and after that the numb sameness of I-5. I figured I’d enjoy the curvy part by first light, but when I woke up at 3:55 AM I thought, “Hell, I could leave now and I’d by home before I hit the Seattle traffic.” So I loaded up the trusty BMW and drove non-stop, 8 hours, all the way home.

By 2:30 in the afternoon we were sitting in front of the fire, sipping on an Old Fashioned I had mixed up with some of that cheaper California bourbon I had picked up along the way–cheaper because it didn’t have the Washington state sales tax. We had some stories to share.

Laguna Seca Part 3: What Would Grandfather Say?

My grandfather, Morton B. Stratton, never told you what he wanted. At the dinner table, for example, he wouldn’t say: “Please pass the butter.” He’d say, “I wonder if there might be room for the butter at this end of the table?” He didn’t ask for another helping of dessert; he asked if I thought the edges needed to be straightened on that pie.

Grandfather was much like his brother, John, who owned and ran the family farm outside Philly. For years, John acted as a father figure to generations of men and some women in my family who went to work on the farm for the summer. John never told us farmhands which field of sweet corn we were to pick; he asked: “Do you think Field 17 is ready to pick today, Tom?”

Some of their gentleness and indirection sure came from our family’s Quaker heritage, which expressed itself not in religious terms but in never telling others what to do or think, preferring that they develop the tools to decide for themselves.

But John and Mort were also just inherently decent, kind, fair men. John’s daughter Betsy and I joke that in a different context, a different age, John would have been a saint. Mort was more of a rascal, but he shared John’s gentle demeanor.

Grandfather and Grandmother

I was thus a little surprised one summer day some 15 years ago when my grandfather pulled me aside and said, “Tom, don’t you think that with a young family to support, your mountain climbing is a little selfish?” My hikes with the Caribunkle boys had grown from quick one-day scrambles into something closer to full-on mountaineering, including ascents of Adams, Baker, and Rainier, and my grandfather knew all too well those were mountains that people died on. Still, he asked a question; he didn’t make an accusation. But I knew what he meant, just as I knew to pass the butter or go pick in Field 17.

I sidestepped his veiled criticism. I assured him—truthfully—that I took great care and that I always prioritized coming home safely over reaching the summit. But I wasn’t about to quit climbing. I loved and still love the freedom and the thrill of it. It makes me feel alive.

Grandfather didn’t like my answer very much, but he didn’t press me and we never spoke of it again.

I wonder what Grandfather would say if he knew that I was about to go on a six-day excursion across state lines, right as the Western states issue a tightening of restrictions on commerce and contact, all for the purpose of driving on a race track? Would he use the stinging word “selfish”? Would he ask why I was willing to put myself and others at risk for the pure thrill of a track drive?

I hear those questions when I first rise in the morning, when I’m drinking coffee at 5 AM. I wonder: am I doing the right thing? I believe that responsible people act not just for themselves, but with the good of the community in mind, or at least that they don’t act against the good of the community. If this is what I value, is my trip a violation of those values? I’ve been visiting this question a lot.

First COVID test: negative!

Here’s what I’d tell Grandfather: I’ll mostly be alone alone in my car; I’ll limit my contacts with others (gas stations, hotel, at the track); I’ll be outside; I’ll wear a mask at all the right times; my COVID test came back negative. In short, I’ll take all the precautions that one can reasonably take to reduce the risk to me and to others.

But dammit, I’m not willing to give up on adventure. I’m going to keep climbing mountains, driving on race tracks, and yeah, I’m going to cross state lines in the midst of a pandemic to do it. To live fully is to experience risk.

This may sound like a suitably “principled” justification, but I’m not trying to get myself an easy pass. I’ll admit, I’m an arrogant ass who thinks most rules don’t apply to me. I’m the guy who dropped his shoulder and sent his mother to the ground when she tried to get in the way of me chasing my brother (when I was 17). I know I have it in me to go after what I want, damn the consequences.

I’ve been waiting all my life for a chance to drive at Laguna Seca, and it’s going to take more than some COVID restrictions to turn me back.

But I won’t deny that hitting the road Thursday morning will be a kind of relief: it will no longer be a question of if I’m going; I’ll be gone.

Laguna Seca Part 2: Planning the Trip

There’s not much mystery in a road trip these days. Between Google Maps and weather apps, you can be pretty sure of what lies ahead.

I’m old enough to remember a different kind of roadtrip, one where you navigated from a Rand McNally atlas or a series of state maps and got your weather reports off local AM stations. The lack of predictability around what lay ahead made for some fun trips, like the non-stop run my brother Pete and I took from Salt Lake City to Detroit that got considerably longer when we found out–surprise–that a massive section of I-70 had been closed for nighttime construction and we had to do a major detour in the middle of the night. This was after we had finally eluded the crazy son-of-a-bitch who rode tight on our bumper for 30 minutes with his lights off in eastern Colorado. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his hood in our rear-view mirror, but we didn’t want to stop or hit the brakes, so we just kept going until he finally backed off into the blackness. I’ve always wondered if he had as much fun as we did.

There was a stretch of my life when it felt like I made a cross-country run just about every 15 months. There was one in the dead of winter between Pullman, WA, and Ann Arbor, MI, when budget cuts at WSU killed both our jobs and we headed back “home” to work for a landscaper and figure out our next steps. We were nearly grounded at a hotel in Missoula–where the temperature stood at -24 degrees–but a patient wrecker driver helped me get the car started and told us, don’t turn the car off again and we didn’t until we got home, for fear it wouldn’t start again. What the hell did we know?

Then there was the time we were visiting my aunt and uncle in their townhouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with our 16-month-old son Conrad. It got to be about 9:00 at night and Sara and I didn’t think we could take another night there so we said, “Conrad’s getting sleepy, let’s drive home,” but home is Lafayette, Indiana, maybe 10 hours away … or it should have been 10 if we hadn’t hit a snowstorm crossing the Indiana state line and then I spent the last couple hours of the drive white-knuckled and half hallucinating, the falling snow making a tunnel in space as dark gave way to morning. It scares me just to think of it! Conrad slept the whole way through, right up until we got about 5 miles from home and then he was ready to roll. We about lost our minds. We both swore never again to drive through the night.

In Google I Trust (with a Little Help from My Friends)

The road trip I’m planning today is a whole different ballgame: technically, all I do is enter my start point of Snohomish, WA, and my end point of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (near Monterey, CA), and I can let Google do the rest. 932 miles, with the vast majority a straight shot down I-5. If I left right now, it would take me 15 hours and 12 minutes. Google will offer me route changes if there are problems ahead, and I’ve given myself 2 days to get there, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

In summer, I’d just hop in the car and go. But it’s mid-November, I’m driving a rear-wheel-drive M2, and I know that Siskiyou Pass in southern Oregon could pose a serious challenge in a snow storm–a challenge that could jeopardize the pretty penny I’ve laid down for 2 days on my dream track. So Plan A is get there fast, I-5 all the way.

But I needed a Plan B, and for that I tapped the hive-mind that is the Avants community. Avants is a “premium membership program for gearheads,” says the website, but it’s also a living, breathing community of 1500 people (and growing fast) who are really into all things drivable and among the most helpful, welcoming groups I’ve ever run across. At noon on a Friday, I posted a question on the org’s Facebook group asking for route advice through southern Oregon, and by day’s end I was absolutely convinced of my Plan B: if the weather turned to hell by the time I reached Grants Pass, I would veer right and take the lower, warmer route 199 to Crescent City, California, then bust my way south on Highway 101 the rest of the way. (Hell, Todd Peach sent me a multi-page guide that spelled out every option possible—who needs GPS when you’ve got friends like this?)

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, Plan B sounds a hell of a lot more interesting, well, you’re right. But I’m laser focused on being my freshest self when I hit Laguna Seca, and that means it’s Plan A for me if at all possible. We’ll see what the weather gods bring my way, and how I find my way back.

PS: The car guys are gonna bust my ass for not mentioning the cars I was in, but they were, surprisingly enough, not that important. In order, mid-70s VW Rabbit, 1987 Saab 900S, and 1992 Saturn SL2.