Archive for the ‘Pacific Northwest’ Category

baby mountain goat

The Kid

I’m don’t know if Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley were climbers, but I think they must have been inspired by mountain goats. Beautiful, powerful, and mysterious, the mountain goat stalks you through the fog, defies gravity astride the icy cliffs, and will buck you to oblivion on a whim. Also he longs for your salty fluids, so don’t pee near camp.

Last weekend, the first of many goats first joined us as we made base camp at 4,400 feet on our way up The Brothers. The welcoming committee consisted of a big billy, a shedding nanny, two wary juveniles, and a very cute kid that scampered around just like a puppy. They milled about us for about an hour while we sat patiently, holding our pee.

Then just after midnight, I was awakened by a sound in the rocks. Two adults and one juvenile appeared in the moonlight and came within a few feet of our party, sacked out as we were in four bivy bags. I clanked my ice axe on a rock nearby to scare the them off. Which had absolutely no effect. Another hour passed before they left us to investigate the climbers in the main base camp 1000 feet below.

And then it was morning and the push to the summit. The goats allowed us to ascend all the way to their ambush in a narrow chute known as the hourglass. At this point, rocks began to hurtle toward us–I assumed from a clumsy mountaineer above. The proper climbing etiquette is to yell “rock” whenever you kick something loose to warn anyone below. But no one called down to us, so we bellowed something about our presence up through the chute. More rocks came, bigger rocks, one of which struck me so hard in the middle of the thigh my whole leg stiffened up. Then the Goat of the Baskervilles slowly stuck his head into view. He had nearly killed us. He looked amused.

In fourteen years of climbing The Brothers, I have only encountered a single mountain goat there before. We must have seen twenty this weekend. Even with the rock kicking and the pee sniffing, they are fantastic to encounter. But I also know what can happen because I have read Three Billy Goats Gruff and it does not turn out very well for the troll.

The Welcoming Committe

The Welcoming Committee


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William gets a leaner for two points

Two circles of orange lantern light on a backwoods road in Montana, with some 30 feet of utter darkness in between. We stand at one end helping to light a dull gray stake slanting up from the dirt and grass. Our partners take aim.

An arm goes swinging back once and then forward in a smooth arc, releasing a spinning red horseshoe. It might land next to the stake for a point, or even grab it for a ringer. Or it might just clock me in the shin. For an uncomfortable moment the horseshoe is hurtling invisibly toward us, trajectory unknown. By the time it emerges into our circle of light, it is too late to dodge out of the way. And that was the easy one. The next horseshoe is black.

Someone grumbles about the rules which we are not following. The stars wheel overhead past a narrow opening framed in tamarack and pine. And I am thinking about the grizzly watching us from a black forest; a giant who left her scat farther down this same road the day before. And there are cougars watching us because they are curious as well as hungry. And I am thinking about how this game must be even more difficult in the Shetland Islands, where it’s so terribly foggy and they have to make the best of it with those really tiny shoes.

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Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980I may not be able to remember my own mother’s birthday, but I cannot forget that today is the 31st anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ greatest eruption in recorded history, May 18, 1980. Back then I was just a kid in Lacey, Washington, living through a remarkable spring of small but continual volcanic activity. Minor earthquakes reminded us every month that something really big was on its way. Small eruptions whetted our appetite. And every few days we would trek up to the top of the neighborhood hill to stare at the clouds. Every cloud we saw was from a volcanic eruption. We knew it.

Then things got serious. My oldest brother returned from an aborted fishing trip in a station wagon that was completely covered with three inches of volcanic ash. We scooped the ash into plastic bags to save for the future, and waited for an ash cloud to float our way.

We were ready when it came with our surgical masks and an eager sense of doom. For about 45 minutes the bright afternoon sky turned dark gray and ash flitted down like prehistoric dandruff. More bags emerged to gather evidence.

Then it was gone. Bright skies returned and we were left with our dingy masks and a memory of the day world history had graced us with recognition. It did not seem like much, but at least we had our bags of ash. By the end of 1980, we had hundreds of them.

But there was a glut on the market. Anyone driving from Seattle to Portland  in the 1980s passed thousands of tons of volcanic ash piled up along the rivers.

Many years later I went looking for the bags of ash, but they were all gone. I accused my mother of discarding them. She denied it. Maybe I should have remembered her birthday.

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Spring cleaning, chicken style

Spring has arrived in Kirkland, which means that the daffodils are blooming, the rain-soaked hills around us are sliding toward Lake Washington with $900,000 homes in tow, and everyone is engaged in some sort of spring cleaning. For the chickens, spring cleaning means rolling around in the dirt as much as possible. Theoretically the dirt baths keep parasites at bay, but I know a kid who bathes regularly in dirt and still managed to get head lice. Anyway, the chickens clean up well enough in the rain which has not ceased since March 1. Julie spent a full four hours this afternoon at William’s track meet in a relentless downpour. Which she did as the better, more dedicated parent. I told her that I was looking forward to seeing the two of them back at our warm house so she could give me a big wet Willy. Which she did not think was funny. But I believe that as long as I am able to amuse myself, that will be enough to get me to summer.

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The first thing you should know about Flaming Geyser is that it is not flaming. It is also not a geyser. In fact, pretty much everything about the namesake of Flaming Geyser State Park is connected to disappointment. It was created inadvertently back in 1911 when coal miner Eugene Lawson drilled a borehole to find coal and penetrated a layer of salt water and methane—this just 11 months after a methane explosion at the nearby Lawson Mine killed 16 miners and wiped the town of Lawson off the map. He returned 11 years later, lit the bubbling mix of water and methane coming from his test hole, and Flaming Geyser was born. Supposedly it shot 25 feet in the air at times, and was at least significant enough to be interesting until someone tried to improve the show with dynamite in the 1960s. After that it burned about 10 inches high, and subsequent earthquakes drained the power further. Now the flame is rarely more than few inches, when it is burning at all. Online reviews of Flaming Geyser State Park are often filled with bitterness.

Unflaming Ungeyser Notwithstanding…

Flaming Geyser with Moon Pies

Flaming Geyser with Moon Pies

My son Nick and I set out this weekend on a hopeful journey to explore the Green River and its peculiar attraction. Nick came prepared with two survival kits, including food and water, medical supplies, and a knife and flint. You just never know. Along the way we passed by Taylor Mountain, where Ted Bundy deposited so many of his victims (I did not mention this). To Nick it was a beautiful wilderness paradise, even if I saw it through a glass darkly—could almost make out ghosts standing along the roadway hoping for a ride home. We hit three small towns, picked up two moon pies, and at last came to the Green River, where Gary Ridgeway left many of his victims (I did not mention this either). Nick marveled at the beautiful ice along the river bank and jumped fearlessly from rock to slippery rock until I could not help but mention the number of swimmers who drown every year in the Green River. Not to spook him, but the place is clearly cursed.

Two stops and a few miles later we turned at last down Flaming Geyser Road and into Flaming Geyser State Park. At the end of the road there was a short trail past a hopeful sign for Flaming Geyser and Bubbling Geyser. We had reached our destination.

There was no flame. Just a bubbling hole in a concrete circle in the middle of a pit. But we had not come all this way to be disappointed, so Nick went to the car and returned with the knife and flint from his survival kit. A few scrapes and sparks later he had the geyser flaming in full 2-4 inch glory. Until the wind blew it out. So in the end, it was a pretty good road trip, with one do-it-yourself flaming geyser, two moon pies, and a lot of father-son time.

Yellowstone be damned.

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A lot of people display the trappings of frontier life in Montana’s Swan Valley. Bud Moore has the actual traps. When his daughter Vicki has a chance to talk about them, and about the winter she spent trapping with her father a few years back, her eyes light up.

But many people in the valley are suspicious of Vicki. She talks to them about managing their land to preserve the environment. She looks a little like a hippy. And most dangerous of all, she has lived most of her adult life in Paris. So when she asks the ranchers and the summer cabin owners to consider committing to a land management plan that will last for generations, naturally they are wary.

At her father’s mill last week, we came across a long wall of traps and got Vicki talking about how they worked. She could catch mink, beaver, even the reclusive wolverine. But of all the traps, the most fascinating was the one they had for coyotes.

“You see this big hook on the end of the chain,” she began. “You need it because you trap coyotes along the side of the road where they hunt for mice. If someone drives down the road and sees your coyote, they’ll just take if for themselves. So instead of staking the trap to the ground, you leave a loose hook. The coyote gets caught and then runs off to into the forest dragging the hook behind him until it snags on something. And then you really have him.”

Land owners in the Swan Valley have a lot to worry about these days. With dramatic mountain ranges on each side and plenty of mountain lakes for fishing and swimming and boating, it’s little wonder that the property around them is no longer affordable for the average resident. Add in the invading noxious weeds, the bad economy, and the uncertainties of life, and the wisdom of developing and committing to a land management plan becomes pretty clear.

But then there’s that hook.

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The road to Bessemer

Our first defeat appeared miles from the base of Mount Phelps, where a heavy gate blocked vehicle access to the Sunday Creek Bridge. A smaller sign imported from urban projects added, No Pedestrians. And above them both, someone had spray painted ominously: Night Watchman on Duty.

We looked at our USGS map to estimate the number of miles ahead. Imagined a night watchman chasing after us with his long flashlight as we emerged sweaty and exhausted from the wrong side of his gate. We decided to turn around and go after Bessemer Mountain instead, even if it meant more miles and more bushwhacking in what was now heavy rain.

Our second defeat appeared miles from the base of Bessemer Mountain. This gate had five separate locks and seven bullet holes for punctuation. Back at the USGS map, we decided to turn around and go after Quartz Mountain. The rain increased.

Our third road-blocking gate came a few miles from the base of Quartz Mountain. This time we were determined to press on. Outside the gate, someone had parked a Jeep with an oversized platform tied to the roof, and a tent lashed on top of the platform. An aluminum ladder led up to a hatch in the platform. One could hardly find a stranger spectacle in the wilderness.

Or so I thought. Rain pouring down, packs on our shoulders, Quartz waiting  in the distance, we were just passing the Jeep with its askewed tent on top when the whole thing began to rock back and forth violently. And moan. It was a force of nature. We did not bother knocking.

In our succession of obscure peak attempts, we ended up targeting the most obscure and least attempted of them all. Climbers don’t avoid Quartz. It just never occurs to people that it ought to be climbed. The summit is not particularly high. The terrain is an endless nuisance. But sometimes, you find yourself with a third choice. We sloshed up shallow streams and crossed roiling rapids. We spent hours swimming our way through tall wild roses that mixed our blood with the relentless rain. We didn’t use our ice axes in snow. We used them as machetes.

But eventually we broke through the brush and above the cliffs and made it to nice chunky boulders and snow and a clear path to the summit. At last. So we sat down in the rain, ate a soggy lunch, and turned around. Sometimes you just need to prove you can make it if you want to.

Descending steep, loose terrain, my climbing partner uncovered a Pacific giant salamander. This one was a good 12 inches long and fat, fat, fat. So I pleaded, Wait for me to get there so I can take his picture! A giant salamander in daylight is better than any summit. But now the monster lost its footing and turned over and over in a fast barrel roll down the steep terrain. My partner lowered himself another 10 feet and located the dizzy salamander. I began to plead once more, Wait, but then I lost my own footing and plunged down head over heels, landing with my left boot precisely where the giant salamander should be.

But under my boot, I found only rotten wood and deep inches of loam. The fat and slow salamander was giantly missing.

Back down through the roses, across the rapids and past the now-still Jeep, we turned at last for home, with a stop in Fall City for beer and burgers. The Sunday Creek Bridge is scheduled to open later this month, so Phelps awaits. Bessemer is sure to be climbed as well, even if we have to bike eight miles in to the base. And I’m guessing the salamander on Quartz is still a bit dizzy. Still recovering from being turned around.

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Some people tell me Gene Porter made pretty good barbecue. I wouldn’t know. Every time we went to Dixie’s, we waited for him to come around and ruin our food with his obscenely hot, blackish paste. It was an oily paste so nasty it earned its own name, the Man. It made you sweat and hiccough. It rendered you speechless. It made eating a numbing ordeal. But that was part of the experience, and the experience is why people went to Dixie’s.

We used to see Gene once a week. Watch his family bicker in the kitchen. Sit at the long cafeteria tables in his old RV repair shop. That was back in the heyday, when scores of people would stand in line for 50 minutes during their ½ hour lunch break, waiting to see who he would single out, and hoping it would be someone else.

He singled people out for parking badly, for wearing the wrong clothes, for looking down at their feet when he approached, for just showing up at his restaurant. If you parked badly, he’d demand your keys and move the car himself. Men with sports cars feared Gene.

But worst of all was to be singled out once you had your food because Gene was always prowling the tables with a toothpick in one hand and an old saucepan of the Man in the other. Gene would ask, “How many you want?” If you said you’d take one dose of the Man, he’d give you two. If you asked for two, he’d give you one. The question itself was just a game, and the rules changed from table to table. The only sure thing was that someone at each table would be made to suffer dearly for the amusement of others, whether they were willing or not. 

Other Dixie’s memories:

  • CD player gets stuck, skipping back and forth on Clarence Carter‘s raunchy blues song, “Strokin'” for 10 minutes. Gene goes upstairs to fix it. Starts the song over from the beginning.
  • Kid throws aluminum can in the regular trash. Gene yells across the room at him. Kid explains that he didn’t see the recyling bin. Gene makes him go upstairs, find a permanent marker, and write RECYCLING in huge letters across the front of the can.
  • Server dishes out pork to our Jewish friend right after he orders beef. Do we tell?
  • The Man melts a hole through the bottom of the metal saucepan Gene has been carrying around for years. The same sauce we are ingesting. Gene keeps the saucepan around to show off.
  • The tip jar next to a bucket of peanuts. For the second tip.

We knew Gene had gone through major heart surgery and it had been a very tough fight. We didn’t know about the cancer that would eventually claim him at 71. But it was clear on our last visit to Dixie’s that the days of the big crowds were gone. The prices were high. The family had quit bickering in the kitchen. “Strokin'” no longer played. And Gene sat convalescing at one of his cafeteria tables, vaguely watching television, too weak to turn around and talk to his patrons. So we ate our heaping messy portions of brisket and hotlink quietly, wondering if we were staring at the consequences across the room. It was our final visit to the theater after the show had ended. We put our hand on Gene’s shoulder on the way out the door. Dropped a second tip in the peanut jar. Farewell, Gene.

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Spring is here, according to Gladys. After a little more than two months of winter vacation, she began laying her bluish eggs again on February 6. Her eggs are bigger now–almost the size of store-bought Large–so at last we can use them in recipes without worrying about how the cake will turn out. They look so beautiful lying on bright red bubinga shavings that it’s almost a shame to bring them in from the henhouse. But I get hungry.

Odd egg out

Forrest, meanwhile, still refuses to lay. When Gladys is busy laying an egg, Forrest stares at us through the sliding glass door with bored irritation. She spends most of her time chasing birds and squirrels out of the yard. Yesterday she and Gladys kept two crows at bay for half an hour. The crows would perch on the fence staring at the chickens, knowing something really good must be in a yard so well guarded. But every time they dropped down from the fence, there would be a chicken running at them full speed, head low. So they would retreat back to the fence to wait, staring down at the chickens in the small yard, completely ignoring the two acres of undefended land immediately behind them.

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Urban Coffee LoungeIt seems appropriate to start this conversation while sitting in the Urban Coffee Lounge (UCL), an independent coffee shop with a clear view of Starbucks across the street. Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz maintains in Pour Your Heart Into It, owes its success as much to giving people a place to meet and share ideas as it does to the quality of its coffee. Co-authored with Seattle writer Dori Jones Yang, this Starbucks history book appeared more than ten years ago, before the drive-through windows, the Safeway outposts run by non-Starbucks employees, the instant coffee (gasp!) in packets, and other tragedies that Schultz swore would never happen under his watch. Notwithstanding these complications, the importance of bringing people together is still true, even if it is a little truer at the coffee shop across the street from Starbucks these days.

When Schultz joined Starbucks back in 1982, the company was still focused on selling beans and equipment that its customers would use at home. But he recognized that there was a larger and more profound problem in America than just bad coffee. People no longer met together with friends and neighbors as they had in the past. Suburbs carried us away from cities and towns, televisions and air conditioning pulled us inside and isolated us further. The need to connect remained, but the places to do so were in short supply.

The success of Starbucks has led not to fewer independent coffee houses, but to more of them. Add to this the increasingly ubiquitous access to high-speed data connections and the mainstream adoption of social media, and what we have been experiencing in the last 20 years is not so much a transformation of culture as a reversal of cultural deterioration.

It was at Juanita’s UCL that I met Jack, a retired architecture professor from the University of Hawaii. He was watching a group of teenagers who were talking with each other while at the same time texting and IMing other friends. What got his attention was the way they pulled the two conversations together as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Jack is working on a book about small town communities. About how they have disappeared and re-emerged through the decades, surviving to the extent that they adapt to short-term change while continuing to address the timeless and fundamental requirements of a community. Needless to say, the sight of a bunch of kids talking and texting at the same time fascinates Jack.

Not long after meeting Jack, I saw that the school bus in Juanita Village drops students off directly in front of the Starbucks entrance, and half of them go straight in. Others head over to UCL, and I like to imagine that when they start texting in the middle of their in-person conversations, they are talking to friends across the street.

Coffee tasting at UCL

Cupping preparation

Meanwhile, Jack recommends a few architects and books for me to look into, so I start my homework with Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. Published ten years before the introduction of Facebook, the book is nevertheless relevant in the world of social media with lessons that apply to any community structure, whether physical or virtual: Do not over-design based on pre-conceived notions of what people will do; Resist the pressure from your developers to have every detail worked out in advance of construction; Recognize that community structures and their occupants thrive by changing together, and changing constantly. Twitter may have started out as a way to answer the question, “What am I doing?” but users happily ignored this restrictive textbox label and the medium evolved into an ongoing dialogue about what people are thinking and what is happening in the world.

Vipin Singh, director of engagement marketing at World Vision, frames the issue more or less this way: “Isn’t social media really just traditional communication done through nontraditional means?” Looking at emerging technology through such a lens, even the most outlandish concepts can suddenly be seen as rational, normal. People who don’t regularly use Twitter, for example, think that bringing a stream of tweets onto your television screen is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard of (barring New Coke). They believe that the Twitterverse is a ridiculous world in which people impulsively tell each other they are standing in line for a latte. But what is really much stranger is the way most Americans spend their evenings today, watching mediocre television programs in the isolation of their living room. Imagine experiencing the same programs accompanied by your best friend’s snarky comments, your brother’s bad jokes, or the oohs and ahs of fans watching simultaneously across your time zone. This is not simply a better way to experience entertainment; it is actually much more like the way things used to be. The way people experienced entertainment together for centuries before television made us lonely.

We tend to think of technology as liberating us from toil and risk, of giving us more control in an unpredictable world. The truth is that, more often, new technology simply liberates us from the constraints of old technology.

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