The Round Years: 50

A signature story.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. It was a rain forest, after all, the only temperate rain forest in the contiguous U.S. You expect certain kinds of behavior from a rain forest, at least you should, but I was lured by bright sunlight on a glorious day in Forks, Washington. Only later did I come to realize that Forks and sunlight were oxymoronic.

“That, of course, was before Forks became a spaceport.”

The town of Forks lies on the edge of the Hoh Rainforest. It’s a town carved from primeval wilderness that has been undone by a small, spotted owl. Not much happens in Forks these days.

There’s a novel about a young girl who moved from Phoenix to Forks and fell in love with a vampire. It’s an oddly appropriate storyline for a town with empty, echoing streets and a liquor store that sells shotgun shells. (They seem to have identified a market opportunity in drunken hunters.)

Maybe the only thing currently thriving in Forks.

That, of course, was before Forks became a space port. The Rubicon, an entry in the X-Prize competition, was launched from Forks, exploded spectacularly mid-air, and littered the Pacific Ocean with bits of mangled mannequin. The bits later washed up on the beach, puzzling tourists. Since its failure in sub-orbital tourism, Forks has again descended into an unquiet stupor.

Forks was roundly condemned as “a festering wound of a town” by Dave Gilmartin in his book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America. That seems harsh; Gilmartin’s attitude was likely soured by his subject matter. The research must have been tiresome.

We came to Forks initially to survey a plot of land for a campsite. The land on the Bogachiel River was owned by friends. Since their property was buried in thick forest several hundred yards from the access road, they guided us to the place the week before my 50th birthday.

“How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?”

It was a glorious day. Sunlight glinted from the rivers. The air smelled of pine and cedar. When we pulled off the highway onto a dirt road, the car flushed a bald eagle. The eagle was in the middle of the road dismembering a salmon. It was a large salmon, almost too heavy for the eagle to lift. As it struggled to gain altitude, we were closing the distance between us at 30 miles per hour. I braked hard and the eagle swept overhead, its wings laboring, dragging the dead salmon through the air, barely clearing our windshield. (How do you explain to an insurance adjuster that your windshield was shattered by a dead fish?)


We found an ideal campsite on a bend of the Bogachiel, a sand bar backed by towering trees. We scrambled over river stones, ate peanut butter sandwiches, got sunburned—a good day. As it turned out, not a typical day.

My wife, Linda, tends to pack for a camping trip as if it were an invasion. I agree entirely with her preparedness; it’s humping all that gear through the woods that’s my problem. It was already late in the day and the light was failing before we finished the dozen trips required to move our gear from car to campsite. And it was raining.

Apparently it had been raining since we left the week before. The Bogachiel had inundated our intended campsite—the pleasant sand bar at the bend in the river. Our alternative was a patch of sword ferns beneath Western red cedar dripping with moss. The cedar and Douglas-fir created a canopy that utterly blocked the sky.

By the time we had erected a tent large enough to accommodate a squad of soldiers with battle gear and crawled into our cots (camping with cots is part of preparedness), the dogs were sodden and shivering. Sharing a camp cot with a wet Portuguese Water Dog is an experience I no longer recommend.

“The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with an awkward name.”

Next day was similar, and the day after that, and the day after that… It rained. It rained hard or soft or sometimes like gossamer but it rained. And for several hours the next day military aircraft streaked across the sky. There were fast attack aircraft, bombers and cargo planes. It went on for hours. A military exercise, likely, but we had no radio, no cell phone coverage, no news of the world. It  was disquieting. And then they began dismembering the forest around us.

The ominous Feller Buncher. 

The romantic days of a man and his chainsaw are gone, replaced by a monstrous machine with the awkward name of Feller Buncher. The machine began felling and bunching around 8:00 am next morning. The forest echoed with the sound of its circular saw and the crack of trees tossed callously aside by the man in an air-conditioned cab. Like the rain, it continued day after day after…

On the fourth day of a vacation intended to last a week, I broke. It happened after attempting to shower from a black bag suspended from a mossy branch. The blackness of the bag was intended to absorb the warmth of the sun. Unfortunately, there is precious little sunlight in a rain forest. Next day we broke camp and bought a trailer.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

Blood Moon

The recent lunar eclipse (August 28, 2007) began on the Pacific Coast around 2:00 am, what was once referred to shipboard as the graveyard watch.

This remarkable montage was taken of the moon sailing over Portland. Click the image to see the detail.

Photo attribution: Ed Williams, Chief Engineer, KPTV/KPDX

If you’re not the type to stand graveyard watch, wait six months. The next full eclipse of the moon will be visible at a more civilized hour, 7:00 pm on February 20, 2008.

The Round Years: 40

A signature story.

The twelve cylinder Detroit Diesels rumbled like a muscle car as we approached the dock lined with 40 black balloons. The mate, who had commandeered the PA system, led a deckload of sodden passengers in a chorus of Happy Birthday. The song went rather well, I thought, considering the passengers had just been pelted with sea spray hard as bird shot and witnessed Assateague ponies copulating wildly.

(In all fairness, the ponies were wild and the passengers not above photographing and filming what came naturally.)

Some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

I brought the Sea Rocket alongside the dock and the crew made fast, then discharged our deck load with practiced efficiency. The passengers filed off with wet clothes clinging to their bodies and tennis shoes squelching. They had gotten their money’s worth and, in some cases, more.

The Sea Rocket was billed as the world’s biggest speed boat. It was marketing hype, admittedly, but at 73 feet she was undeniably large. Except for a slightly raised platform where the helmsman stood, the deck was unobstructed from bow to stern and seated 135 passengers. We boarded those passengers at Gator’s dock in Ocean City, carried them across the bay to Assateague Island, then into the open Atlantic. That, at least, was the plan. Sometimes it didn’t go according to plan.

The Sea Rocket on a calm day.  Note the gratuitous rooster tail. Photo attribution:

I once ran aground in the soft mud while jockeying for a better view of the ponies. We shifted the passengers like movable ballast, crowding them aft to lighten the bow until we could break free of the mud’s suction. The passengers thought it part of the show and gave a cheer when we were once again afloat.

The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically.

And the ponies weren’t always amorous. Sometimes they didn’t even show. When they did perform, however, some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

After Assateague Island, I turned the Rocket’s bow towards the inlet. The crew began shrugging into their foul weather gear and securing their sun glasses with lanyards like goggles. The passengers often thought it part of the show until I pushed the throttles forward and the trim tabs down.

On the windward leg the Rocket would often bury her bow in the swell, the spray would rise in a parabolic arc then drive into the passengers on the aft deck with the combined speed of the wind and the boat. On a brisk day that could approach 40 knots. Salt spray driven at that speed stings. People tucked their head between their legs in self-defense.

Throughout the windward leg passengers on the foredeck felt themselves  protected by special dispensation. The spray arced over their heads, leaving them untouched. They pointed and laughed as their fellow passengers on the aft deck squealed and writhed with each impact until we turned and headed back through the inlet.

The deep ocean waves began to build as they approached the inlet and felt the bottom shoaling beneath them. The Rocket surfed down the face of the waves. The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically. By the time we returned to the dock decorated with black balloons and the mate singing Happy Birthday, everyone who had bought a ticket was thoroughly soaked.

It was the last trip of the day. The crew at Gator’s had a round of drinks waiting for us at the bar—Tequila shooters were popular at the time. It was my fortieth birthday. I don’t clearly remember the rest of the night. I think it had something to do with a Ferris wheel. At some point a reporter for the local paper photographed the crew of the Rocket. It’s the only photograph I have of us all together—suntanned, grinning, and drunk as sailors.

The crew of the Rocket celebrating my 40th at a bar on Ocean City inlet (I’m the guy with a hat.)  Linda, my wife, is the one hoisting a beer. The grainy photo is from a local newspaper. Click for enlarged image.

Related posts: Riding the Rocket

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

The Round Years: 30

A signature story.

Dan Wallace lived in a sailor’s ghetto on the Oakland Estuary where the current turned in sluggish gyres like the Sargasso Sea, laden with flotsam and debris, oil slicks and algae blooms, light bulbs, McDonald’s wrappers, and spent condoms. At the bottom of the Estuary the berthing was cheap and Wallace was tight as any Scotsman.

There were certain liabilities associated with a cheap berth in the bottoms. Bums tended to squat on the tidelands and forage on the docks, rotted planks splintered underfoot, and a strong southwester pushing a plus tide could lift the docks higher than the short pilings that anchored them. Large rafts of docks with boats still attached were sometimes set adrift on the Estuary.

On the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Wallace was a BMW (Boat Maintenance Worker), a sanitized term coined by Latitude 38 to replace one more colorful but less printable. He was good at fixing boats which was how we met. I needed boats fixed. I was the maintenance manager for Club Nautique’s charter fleet. Since I’ve always been mechanically inept, Wallace was a valuable resource.

He also became a friend. His caustic sense of humor and fondness for rum were endearing. And we tended to dislike the same people, especially Fast Freddy, the owner of NorCal Yachts.

Wallace bought Freya, a wooden pinky* 30-something feet long, and moved onboard. As mentioned, Wallace was a frugal bastard and he never threw anything away. He still had report cards dating from grammar school. It was a challenge for him to stow all of his stuff in a small wooden boat with a narrow beam. The report cards ended up in the bilge.

 The fact that Freya’s maiden voyage was on my 30th birthday was coincidental but meaningful—Jung’s definition of synchronicity—but, 25 years later, I have yet to puzzle out the meaning.

The boat’s engine didn’t work so we sailed her from the slip, short-tacking out the Estuary until we reached open water and the East Bay. By the time we sailed beneath the Bay Bridge we had broached a bottle of Mt Gay rum and were feeling well-pleased with ourselves. Then the wind filled in.

If you’ve never sailed the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor.

One of those lines is drawn between Yerba Buena Island and the San Francisco city front. In other words, the Bay Bridge. On one side of the bridge it’s warm and embracing, like drinking a mellow Chardonnay in a hot bath. On the other side it’s likely blowing great guns and small arms and cold enough to shrivel your manhood.

Neither Wallace nor I knew much about wooden boats. Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor. It takes some time sitting in salt water before a boat rehydrates. Appropriately, the process is called pickling.

When the wind first struck Freya, the boat flinched like a wounded animal, the hull groaned, and the seams between the planks gaped. The hull was subject to conflicting forces. It was like a taffy pull. No doubt we would have been more concerned if we had been less drunk.

At the time we were preoccupied with keeping our feet and fighting the atrocious weather helm. Wallace had his sea boots braced against the cockpit coaming and the tiller beneath his chin trying to keep the boat from rounding to weather. I was handing sail like a washerwoman.

“I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

When I finally did go below for another tumbler of rum, I could see daylight between seams on the weather side of the boat. Sea water was flowing down the inside of the hull to leeward. The cabin sole was awash. Wallace’s grammar school grades, parking tickets, love letters and restraining orders were surging back and forth on a rising tide. Even his sleeping bag was sodden.

“Yo, Wallace,” I shouted from below decks. “I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

The pumps were able to keep up with the incoming water for a while until they clogged on paper pulp. Wallace’s history had become an amorphous mushy mass sloshing across the cabin sole and fouling the bilge pumps. He took it hard.

“Christ, man” I said unkindly. “Why are you crying like an old woman? I’m the one that’s 30 years old.”  

*According to The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, a pinky is one of the oldest types of New England fishing and trading vessels. Built with a Baltic hull form having a pointed stern similar to the bow over which a false stern was carried beyond the rudder like a square counter.

Example of a pinky with false stern carried beyond the rudder. Freya looked much like this but without the gaffs.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

Long, Strange Trip

I stood on a manicured lawn that sloped to an architecturally precise creek designed especially for Microsoft. I drank white wine, ate peanuts, and listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket on stage. A pair of osprey circled effortlessly overhead, rising on a column of heated air. No one seemed to notice. Clouds massed on the eastern horizon above the Cascades and I had one of those disconcerting moments when the commonplace becomes oddly unfamiliar like looking into a store front window and mistaking your own reflection for that of a stranger. How the hell did I get here?

I have those moments periodically—once on the deck of a Valiant 40 anchored at Hanalei Bay, drinking Tanqueray and tonic  just prior to my first Trans-Pacific delivery; another reading Carlos Castenada in a six-wheeled vehicle while on maneuvers with the Fourth Mechanized Division across the high plains of Colorado; and again while living on a beach in Baja California, watching the body of a sea lion slowly erode week after week. How the hell did I get here?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no possible way to predict where my life will lead me. (Half the time I’m not even sure where I’ve been.) I had no inkling that I would become a yacht captain or launch nuclear rockets from a truck bed or work for Microsoft. It’s just too weird to be credible.

The Grateful Dead always said it best.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;
Other times, I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me …
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Color Me Red

I recently took one of those personality tests popular with large corporations, the kind that assigns each personality type to a color quadrant. I thought I was blue – cool, dispassionate, analytical. Turns out I was wildly off-target.

In reality, I’m undeniably red – driving, dictatorial, interested more in results than relationships. I’m not even vaguely warm and fuzzy, not even in my sleep. In short, I’m an asshole.

Recognizing my true self has been liberating. I no longer have to fain interest in other people’s opinions or their children. (In all honesty, I don’t dislike all children, just the ones near me.) Nor do I have to pretend that corporations are driven by anything other than self-interest.

I have embraced my inner asshole.

As a newly declared curmudgeon, I should urge others to also come out of the closet but I don’t really care.

And you know that silly questionnaire every new employee is required to complete, the one with the inane request: Name a guilty pleasure? Well, I no longer regret my answer: Sheep.


A signature story.

When I first walked onto Wheeler’s Ranch in the late afternoon, I saw two buxom blonds feeding livestock near the barn. Their hair was tied in pony tails. They were each wearing a velour jumper and nothing else, not even sandals. For a Baptist boy from the suburbs of LA, this was the promise of the 60’s made flesh. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I wasn’t far wrong. Someone almost died that night.

I was hitching north along the Pacific Coast Highway, not going anywhere so much as leaving someplace behind. I spent a rain-soaked night sheltering in the burnt husks of redwoods in the Sur woods, bought a rucksack in Haight Ashbury, and crossed the Golden Gate in the back of an old pickup truck. The last ride left me on the roadside, miles from nowhere.

On the far side of the road was the relentless Pacific; on the near side, a sea of grass rolling in the wind. Sheep grazed behind rusted barbwire tacked to split-rail fence posts. A hawk circled overhead. A dirt road led up the ridge to Wheeler’s Ranch.

For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat.

At the time I knew nothing about communes except what I’d heard rumored by Republicans, all of it slanderous. Wheeler’s Ranch was the real thing—an Open Land community. Anyone was welcomed to live on the 300 acres; no one was refused. Bill Wheeler, the man who bought the land and freed it, was co-founder of the archetypal California commune, Morningstar.

Bill Wheeler at the ranch. Behind him, the studio.
Photo attribution:
Sara Davidson

By the time I had walked several miles to the ranch, it was late in the afternoon. Shadows had pooled in the ravines. I camped on the side of a hill with a fairly steep pitch. There was nothing flat within sight.

It was a dark night, a moonless night. There was no electricity on Wheeler’s ridge. It was remorselessly dark.

And it rained that night. The small tent I’d bought from the war surplus store in the Haight kept me snug. I was reluctant to leave the tent when I heard people shouting from the ridge top above. For all I knew such things were common at a commune. They might be sacrificing a goat. I heard the clanging of a bell, then saw fire reflected on the leaves of the surrounding trees, as if the trees themselves were on fire. I was sufficiently motivated.

On the ridge, the house that Wheeler had built himself was burning. It had become his studio when the county condemned it for code violations but it contained many of the commune’s musical instruments and art supplies. It was an amateurish, slack-jawed construction but it was the most substantial building they had and it was burning beyond control.

A bucket brigade had already formed and disbanded. The fire was too hot to approach. A crowd of a few dozen people in various degrees of undress stood and watched. The building burned maniacally.

At some point the crowd began connecting cause and effect; it became a mob. Someone remembered a speed freak with a penchant for fire. He had tried to burn the studio before, hadn’t he? The bastard!

A skinny, ragged guy was dragged in front of the mob and thrown on the dirt. He had the look of a deer caught in approaching headlights. Someone had already punched him a few times, encouraging his cooperation. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. The crowd closed around him, their faces illuminated by fire. They were in a vengeful mood.

"String him up," someone shouted. It was an archetypal line I’d heard in countless cheap Westerns. "String him up." The mob agreed.

They manhandled him under a big tree with branches stout enough to bear the weight of strange fruit. Someone went to get a rope. The speed freak lay curled like a fetus in the dirt trying to protect himself from occasional kicks.

It could have gone either way for him—his life literally hung in the balance—until Wheeler pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He looked like an Old Testament patriarch, his long hair and beard in disarray, his eyes bright with fire.

"No," he shouted and kept shouting until the crowd quieted enough to listen. It wasn’t a long speech but a lot of years have dimmed my memory. The gist was that he had formed the commune on the principle of land owned by no one and free to all. He wasn’t going to violate that principle for a burnt-out speed freak and a bunch of angry yahoos. They would cast the sinner out of the garden, "And if you ever come back," Wheeler promised, bending over the man lying in the dirt, looking in his face, "I’ll kill you myself."

So they hauled him down to the gate in the middle of the night and set him on the road to the coast that was strung with headlights like pearls. The locals had seen the fire on the ridge. Whatever they might think of hippies, fire was their common enemy. They had come to help. Too late.

In the morning I broke camp and moved on without a word, traveling north. Communal living was just too damned stressful.

Post script: Until I began writing this story and looked up Wheeler’s Ranch on the web, I had no idea it held such a prominent place in the history of communal living. It was a personal memory without a wider context, a single chaotic night on a windswept ridge. I wanted to confirm the few things I thought were facts but the disjointed history of the commune failed to mention the fire, much less the attempted lynching. I also remembered the commune farther north near the California border and the ramshackle studio as a Victorian farmhouse. So take this as a personal rather than social history. I believe the events happened as I remembered them but the details, maybe not so much.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

Battle of Elliott Bay

If the killing of a pig can be called a war then yachtsmen armed with shotguns can be called a battle.

The battle occurred on a Saturday morning in 1909 when members of the Elliott Bay Yacht Club landed in force at the foot of Charles Street, South Seattle. They were opposed by burly lumbermen.

With the substantial help of Hiram Gill, Seattle’s wondrously corrupt mayor, the yacht club had secured a long-term lease on the waterfront lot. The lease was contested by the Erickson Mill Company which actually had buildings on the lot. Possession might normally be nine tenths of the law but in Seattle, Hiram Gill was the law.

Adloph Rohlf’s new yawl Acquilla was pressed into service as a gunboat. Four shotguns were mounted on her gunnels to dissuade the yard employees. The Acquillla arrived on the sunlit morning with decks cleared for action, accompanying a pile driver. The lumbermen tactically withdrew and pile driving began.

The Post-Intelligencer reported that “a pitched battle between a pile-driving crew working for Elliot Bay Yacht Club and employees of the Erickson Mill Company…was narrowly averted yesterday at noon…” The paper failed to mention that the battle was narrowly averted by the threat of deadly force.

The Seattle Yacht Club officially merged with the Elliot Bay Yacht Club later that year, and the battle of Elliott Bay became part of its legacy.

Resources: The Centennial History of the Seattle Yacht Club 1892-1992

Signature Stories

At the time I was too busy wielding a six foot flame and trying to avoid being stripped naked in front of two hundred Baptists to recognize the formative nature of the moment. Thirty years later, it’s become one of my signature stories at Microsoft.

I often seem to arrive at those formative moments by torturous paths. It was my burden to be born a Baptist in Southern California but it was my choice to accept the position of Skit Chairman for BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship) in my senior year of high school. At the time it seemed a harmless choice; in retrospect, it led inevitably to that moment on stage wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a look of chagrin.

We were supposed to promote the weekly BYF activity – in this case a luau, a properly sanitized luau, something you might see on Lawrence Welk. I had a loosely formed group of guys who helped. Typically we didn’t even begin working on a skit until Sunday afternoon, a few hours before the drop dead line. Desperation may not have improved our creativity but it certainly drove production.

I think the idea was first sparked by a Hawaiian war chant that my father played Sunday mornings to get us kids out of bed. (His alternative was whistling reveille at deafening volume.) Wonders volunteered to wear the grass skirt and coconut brassiere. I ended up with the torch.


Rick Wonders was a big guy – north of six foot and 200 pounds. He could tuck a 60-pound surf board beneath his arm like a loaf of French bread. He had an irreverent sense of humor and no sense of discretion which made him perfect for the part of the Hawaiian maiden. I was less than 160 pounds with no sense at all which made me perfect for the part of torch-bearer.

We never questioned the wisdom of carrying a live flame onto a wooden stage. Apparently, neither did the adults.

The torch was a rag soaked in kerosene and stapled to a stick. Once the music started, the torch was lit and we leaped onto the stage. There was no dialog, no choreography, and little planning but the visual impact was stunning. We were such a success that we were invited to perform in front of the college kids.

This was a sophisticated audience – mature, refined, educated. The same shtick that worked for high school wouldn’t fly here. We needed to dial our presentation up a notch.

In retrospect, saturating the torch with more kerosene was probably not the best response nor ripping off Wonders’ coconut brassiere during the performance. (In my defense, it was an extemporaneous moment.)  Wonders retaliated by pulling off the plaid towel that was part of my authentic Hawaiian costume. I was left wearing only a pair of white boxers and a look of animal panic.

To this day the question haunts me:  Would a scraggly naked kid on stage be funny to an audience of Baptists?

My only defense was a flame that was now like a gas flare vomiting from an oil refinery. I thrust the torch at Wonders like a animal trainer trying to keep an unleashed tiger at bay. The flame traveled up the torch and engulfed my hand with each forward thrust. I was crucified between pain and humiliation. The Hawaiian war chant drove toward a climax. The audience sat transfixed, mouths gaping, pinned like butterflies to black velvet. The front row gasped as the fly of my boxers billowed open.

The performance ended when I exited stage left, screaming, trailing a plume of flame and smoke. We were not asked to repeat our performance.

Post Script: Afterward there was a private moment when I stood in the courtyard, the discarded torch burning on the flagstones, nursing my wounded hand. A gentle woman working in the kitchen next door came to my aid and treated my hand, crisp as the skin of a broiled chicken, with butter. I am forever grateful that she didn’t ask me why I was dressed only in underwear.


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