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#9: The Backwards Guidebook

Gregg Evans

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

They made up their minds and they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going
Without ever knowing
The way?
Fastball, The Way

Follow the yellow brick road, follow the yellow brick road
Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow-brick road!
The Munchkins

          I mentioned in another post Maria and my walk across Wales several years ago. We spent our days traversing pastures, climbing stiles and fences, following thick hedgerows, ascending windswept hills, descending into valleys, passing by ancient ruins, and strolling through forests of oak and orchards of apples, almost never quite sure where we were.

          As we walked from the headwaters of the Afon Gwy (River Wye) in the hills of Plynlimon to the river's mouth at the town of Chepstow, none of the route, geography or name-places of the Wye Valley were familiar to us, the trail was often indistinct and open to interpretation, and we didn't have GPS, so we were always on the lookout for way-markers – plaques, usually affixed to a post, assuring us we were still on the right path.

          In the picture above, Maria is pointing out a way-marker on a fence post. That particular one was easy to spot, but that wasn't always the case. As you can tell from the picture below, the way-markers were sometimes obscured by foliage and not so easy to see.

           Because the Wye Valley Walk is a National Trail, it has an Official Route Guide. We picked up one of those and found it to be full of charming and detailed directions such as the following:

Carry along the same track through a gate, after which the river bends to the left on the way to its source. There is a good view of the watershed on Plynlimon from here. Go straight on to a gate by a small plantation and climb uphill on the track to a double bend. The valley to the left is black with mining spoil and you can see the remains of an old level running into the hillside. Follow the road bending to the left and then to the right. A track to the left on the second bend leads to a viewing point that offers superb views towards the actual source of the Wye.

          Such great detail! Clearly, the guidance was written by someone who had walked the Wye Valley herself, recording every turn, bend, and feature of the trail for the benefit of other walkers. She wrote the instructions as if she were just ahead of her readers, guiding them along the trail she had just walked herself with all its twists and turns, ups and downs, fences, stiles and gates.
          I want you to get a feel for the instructions contained in the Guide, so give this little exercise a try: Imagine you're walking through a bucolic landscape of green pastures and wooded hillsides, with some of the pastures dotted with sheep and each pasture clearly defined by hedges, tree-rows, rock walls, or fences.  This picture will help you get started:

          You traversed a forested hillside for most of the last hour or so, but now you've left the forest trail for a gravel road.

          Up ahead is a well-kept two-story stone house - the Ty-mawr Farm - surrounded by an expansive, gently-sloping yard of green grass with wonderful views of the Wye Valley and its river. In your mind's eye, try to picture the trail as the guidebook describes it:

     The walk follows a track [that gravel road] around the edge of Ty-mawr farm, passing a large bridge on the right. The track bears left leaving the River Wye and following the Nant [creek] Ty-mawr. Take the right hand fork and cross the stream following the path uphill to a gate. Turn right and follow the track leading downhill, passing an old barn on the way.
     At the bottom of this track turn left and almost immediately bear right towards the river bank and a stile. The path loops around in front of Hendre [a Victorian farmhouse], before crossing the drive and going uphill and crossing a footbridge and stile leading into a field.  Proceed through four fields before reaching a gate. There is a choice of routes at this point, a riverside or woodland option.
     To follow the riverside path bear right down the hillside towards a gate. Turn left and follow the path that soon leads onto a farm track running near the river. When the track bends sharp left take the stile on the right and follow the river bank to the next stile that leads back into a field with a bridge crossing the Nant-y-Cwm. Continue through further fields to reach a large footbridge over the River Wye. Don't cross this, but follow the top of the flood bank around to reach the forest road.

          Crazy how detailed it is, right? All the particulars are noted; nothing is left to chance. If you were walking upriver from Chepstow to Plynlimon, the guidebook would be tremendously helpful, but if you were walking in the opposite direction - downriver from Plynlimon to Chepstow, as Maria and I were - instead of being helpful, the Official Route Guide would be 126 pages of bass-ackward confusion. Because we were walking in the “wrong” direction, every right turn in the Guide was a left for us, and every left turn was a right; every downhill in the guidebook was an uphill for us, and every uphill a down; every fork noted in the guidebook was for us a place where two paths joined into one rather than where one split into two; and the Guide's painstakingly detailed directions were always leading to where we were coming from and coming from where we wanted to go! It was like a sustained head-on collision. If you think that you could easily translate such backward guidance into useful information, I urge you to go back to the quoted instructions above and figure out how you'd use them conversely to travel in the opposite direction.
          I tried reading the Guide paragraph-by-paragraph in reverse order, but that didn't help because each paragraph consisted of sentences that were themselves sequentially backwards from the way we were traveling.  So I tried reading the sentences in reverse order, from last sentence to first, but each multi-clause sentence was backwards within itself and needed to be read in reverse order clause-by-clause.
          Of course I tried substituting right for left and left for right and swapping all other directionals and spatial orientations for their opposites or inverses and again read each sentence, and each clause of each sentence, in reverse. I've dubbed this backwardization and I dare you to try it for a few minutes. Your head will explode. Seriously, it will. You've been warned.
          I even turned around and read the instructions as written while facing in the “right” direction, hoping that doing so would calibrate my internal compass in some useful way. It didn't.
          I also attempted a visualization technique. As I read the directions, I envisioned the landscape that was being described and imagined myself hovering over and looking down on the scene below. I figured a bird's eye view, if I could gain one, would eliminate all the confusion. The theory might be sound, but I literally got nowhere with it.
          Even with help from a local, I couldn't make sense of the guidebook's directions. The consultation shown below did not involve the actual guidebook but a pamphlet whose content was lifted directly from the Guide. Same difference.

          By the end of our first day on the Wye Valley Walk, Maria and I realized that the Official Wye Valley Walk Guidebook was going to be far more frustrating than helpful, so we abandoned the Guide and resolved to find our way by keeping our eyes peeled for those elusive way-markers. We missed a few of them and had to backtrack as many times, but we eventually made it to Chepstow no worse for the wear and no thanks to the splendid but useless Official Guide Book.
          I'm thinking of doing the Wye Valley Walk again, following the same north to south route as before, but this time taking careful notes along the way in preparation for writing a Plynlimon to Chepstow guidebook. I know such a guidebook is needed.

#8: Fourth of July

Gregg Evans

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

          Other than this one day a year, Independence Day is more likely to be taken as a reference to a Roland Emmerich/Jeff Goldblum movie than to that momentous day 240 years ago when America declared its independence from England. If I were a crotchety old man, I'd probably be reminiscing about the history-respecting patriotism of the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth and bemoaning the ignorant and shallow celebrations of today, but thankfully, I haven't yet arrived at that level of crotchetiness. While I might properly lament the shallowness of today's celebrations, I cannot contrast them unfavorably with those of my childhood, for when I was growing up, we celebrated the Fourth of July giving no more thought to the Founding Fathers and their revolutionary declaration than do most people today. As I remember it, the holiday was mainly about a lavish family picnic (the centerpiece of which was fresh-caught and expertly-grilled salmon) and fireworks.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

          Though you wouldn't know it from our Fourth of July celebrations, my family was actually quite patriotic, but in spite of that, I confess that I'm not very patriotic today. I'm happy to be an American and I don't have an anti-American bone in my body, but I'm just not very nationalistic.  Not usually, anyway, but a wave of patriotism will wash over me from time to time; a profound love of country will well up from the depths of my heart now and then. That wave of patriotism will usually be triggered by something simple – seeing the flag, hearing a patriotic song or a veteran's story, or gazing at a natural wonder at one of our National Parks – but it comes in an especially powerful way at places of great national significance or sacrifice – a Civil War battlefield, Pearl Harbor, Corrigedor, the American Cemetery in Manila, the beach in Leyte where General MacArthur made good on his promise to return. Even at a cathedral in England, oddly enough.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

          Among the things to do in Hereford, England, is visit the Hereford Cathedral which dates from the eleventh century and houses three notable historical artifacts: the largest remaining chained library; the 13th century Mappa Mundi; and one of the original copies of the 1217 Magna Carta. As you may know, the Magna Carta was the agreement in 1215 between England's King John and his most powerful subjects, imposing limits on the former and asserting the rights of the latter to avoid civil war. Though the 1215 charter was nullified by Pope Innocent III just weeks after being being sealed by King John, it was reissued in 1217 by John's nine year old son and successor, King Henry III. The Hereford Cathedral has held one of the original copies of the Magna Carta since 1217, and of the scores of copies originally distributed to churches, libraries and officials, only four remain. The Magna Carta consisted of 63 clauses, mostly pertaining to the rights of the powerful English upper class, but the 39th and 40th clauses, recognizing rights of any “free man” and “anyone,” contained the philosophical seeds of modern democracy:

No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land . . . We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone.

          Living 240 years into the experiment called America, it is hard to imagine that there was a time in history when royalty could trample over commoners with impunity, but that was the case at the time of the Magna Carta and was still largely the case when America issued its Declaration of Independence from England. Especially at the time of the Magna Carta, if a royal wanted something you had, he could simply take it. He might first have you arrested and imprisoned before declaring the confiscation of your property the due penalty for whatever crime he dreamed up against you, but he could take what he wanted one way or another. Your house could be entered by the king's agents at any time for any reason, and your resistance could be met with a beating and/or imprisonment. Whatever rights you possessed were thought to have been bestowed by the king, and the king could withdraw your rights at any time.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

          Gazing at the Magna Carta at Hereford was a powerfully moving experience for me and was one of those patriotic moments I mentioned having from time to time. Maria and I had lived 18 years in Asia, traveling extensively there, and wherever we lived or visited – Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, China, Korea – I looked like the foreigner I was, never blending in, always standing out, but in Wales and England, I didn't look like a foreigner. I felt a sense of belonging, as if the ghosts of my ancestors stood along the paths and lanes we walked, welcoming me to hen wlad fy nhadau – the old land of my fathers.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

          Maria and I had been walking from town to town in the Wye Valley for a week – Plynlimon to Llangurig, Llangurig to Rhayader, Rhayader to Builth Wells, Builth Wells to Boughrood, Boughrood to Hay-on-Wye, Hay-on-Wye to Monnington, and Monnington to Hereford – seeing more sheep than people every day and doing nothing touristy, but at Hereford we changed it up by going to the Cathedral.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

          I enjoyed looking at the Mappa Mundi and reading its history, and I was enthralled with the Cathedral's chained library of 229 medieval manuscripts, but it was the Magna Carta that really took my breath away. I was in awe of the document itself. I mean, it was written in 1217 and was the basis not only for much of subsequent English law but of Western law generally. The Magna Carta represented a huge step forward in the betterment of humanity, recognizing that individuals should be free from victimization at the whim of rulers. As I stood before the Magna Carta, I read an annotation explaining the document:

The Great Charter of Liberties or Magna Carta agreed between King John and his barons at Runnymede in 1215 is one of the most famous documents in history. It is considered the foundation of English common law and much of its world wide importance lies in the interpretation of the clauses [especially 39 and 40] from which grew the right of the freedom of the individual or habeas corpus.

‘No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or in any way victimised, or attacked except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land’

          As I was reading the above, I was thinking to myself, “How cool! Almost 800 years ago, these ideas of equality and justice were being written down and proposed as law in England.” But it was the next line of the explanation that got me all choked up:

This right [habeas corpus] is most famously contained in the American Bill of Rights embodied in the Constitution of the United States of America.

          There I was, an American in England, standing within inches of the document that is generally recognized as England's greatest contribution to Western thought and law, and the explanatory note references the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution as the most famous exemplar of that document! I got choked up about that; a wave of patriotism washed over me; love of country welled up from deep within me.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

          After listing some 27 grievances against King George and England and explaining that those grievances had been brought to the attention of England many times to no avail, the actual Declaration of Independence is stated as follows:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

          Later today I will celebrate the Fourth of July with family. As in the days of my youth, a lavish picnic and fireworks will be the highlights of our celebration.  Some of us might give little or no thought to the founding of our nation, but amid our feasting and fireworksing, I will recall my moment with the Magna Carta in the Hereford Cathedral and the reminder it was to me of America's commitment to equality and justice, however imperfectly it has been expressed over these last 240 years.  A healthy love for the United States is sure to well up from my heart.  Today will be a day for patriotism and flag-waving.

Happy Fourth of July, 2016

#7: My First Solo Road Trip

Gregg Evans

          I bought my first car, a '71 Mustang, in the spring of '74, and that summer I took my first solo adventure. I took two weeks off from my job at Gunderson Jewelers in Tacoma, WA, and headed south with the plan of skiing Mount Shasta in Northern California. Skiing Mt. Shasta in July would involve hiking up because no lifts would be running, and what I had in mind was a high elevation ski run that would start far above the lifts anyway.  My plan was strong concerning the goal – ski Shasta in July – but weak on the details – I didn't really know anything about Shasta, what facilities were there, where I'd camp, what I'd eat. I'm still a little like that when it comes to planning adventures - strong on goal, weak on details.
          A burst radiator hose outside Weed, CA, threw me off the vague schedule I had in mind for arriving at Shasta before 9:00AM. I hitched into town and bought a replacement hose, hitched back to my car, replaced the hose and refilled the radiator, and by the time I got to the parking lot at the base of Shasta, it was already mid afternoon. With my skis and boots resting on my shoulder, I hiked up Shasta for a couple hours. I met and talked with two skiers who'd started hiking at dawn and were now on their descent. They wondered why I was hiking up at that time of day and cautioned me about hiking much further. I continued hiking long enough to assure myself that I was my own boss but not so long as to get caught on the mountain after dark. I got a pretty fun 20 minute run for my effort, but at the end of it, standing in the empty parking lot next to the closed lodge, I realized that I didn't want to spend the rest of my vacation there. I drove back down to I-5 and headed south, turning southeastward either from Redding or Red Bluff.
          Driving through the impeccably tended walnut orchards in that swath of rich farmland between I-5 and the Sierras, the colors, smells and rural scenes spoke to me; planted something in me; introduced me to the love of the road and solitude and silence and the luxuriousness of private thoughts. With windows rolled down (back then, we rolled windows down), I could smell the rich earth and feel the little micro climates of cool and warm as I drove through them. I was enthralled by the purple haze of dusk and the thousand shades of darkness in the orchards; the bats and moths darting through and flitting around the yellow glow of the occasional street light; the tiny community rodeos and softball games under flood lights; farmhands and field workers and their families piling out of their trucks and cars and heading to the ballpark gates. I imagined it would be grand to be among them, to sit in the bleachers with them and share in their tortillas and tortas, to meet a Mexican girl and learn how to make her brothers laugh. My heart was bursting with the joy of freedom and travel and driving and being in a place so beautiful and full of life, and I especially loved that I was having that experience alone.  Some things are best experienced privately.
          Late in the night, I found myself in Marysville where there was some sort of festival going on with a carnival and a concert. I strolled around and felt so alive and free, without schedule or supervision. I think it was my first taste of such freedom, and I loved it. I was completely on my own, in a strange town, among people I didn't know, and loving every second of it.
          Dylan's Blood on the Tracks wouldn't come out until the following year, so at the time, my favorite LP was Jackson Browne's Late For the Sky which was pretty much on constant play in my mind. Other than the reference to “my old neighborhood,” a stanza from the song Walking Slow captured my Marysville night perfectly:

Walkin' slow down the avenue through my old neighborhood
Don't know why I'm happy, I've got no reason to feel this good.
Maybe it's because I'm all alone and I've got no place to go
And everywhere I look I see another person I'll never know.

          The next day, I drove into the Sierra foothills and, being a ghost town buff, checked out Grass Valley, Nevada City and the remote old town of North Bloomfield with its extensive hydraulic and placer mining tailings. My plan, to the extent that one was forming at all, was that after visiting a few historic towns I'd drop down to I-80 and buzz over to Sparks, Nevada, to see Harold's car collection (then recognized as the largest collection in the world), but my plan changed when I picked up a couple hitchhikers, towheaded brothers about my age, who needed a lift to Downieville where they expected to catch hell for not coming home the night before. It didn't matter to me that a Downieville roundtrip would be about 100 miles out of my way – I wasn't going to be controlled by any schedule, not even my own! We smoked cigarettes and shared stories for an hour or more as I took them fifty twisty-turny miles up the highway along the rushing Yuba River to Downieville, dropping them off right at their ramshackle house, an abode that reminded me in every way of Ma and Pa Kettle's place at Cape Flattery. Seriously, the screen door was hanging off one hinge and the dilapidated porch was occupied by a couple ancient rocking chairs, a beat old davenport, a vintage washtub with wringer, a few mangy cats, and a lazy bloodhound. An assortment of rusted machinery, farm implements, mattress springs and decomposing cars littered the bare-dirt yard where chickens, geese and goats wandered freely. Invited in, I suddenly decided I needed to stick with my plan after all; needed to get going. I'd seen Deliverance.
          From Downieville, I got back on 49 and retraced the route I'd just driven, passing through Nevada City and Grass Valley, then crossing I-80 at Auburn, and continuing south to the Marshall gold discovery site on the American River at Coloma. For several years, I had immersed myself in gold-rush history and lore, and to at last arrive at the place where the California Gold Rush started was a dream come true. I parked the car and wandered all over the place, from one end of it to the other, looking into every building, talking to shop keepers and park rangers, standing at the water's edge and imagining what it must have been like 125 years earlier. To me the place was magical, sacred. Still is. I've been back at least 20 times since then, not for what is there but for what was. I can sit there for hours, content to be lost in thought about the lives, fortunes and failures of the gold rush. Though I didn't know it at the time, my maternal great grandfather, Aaron Cornelius Hall, was with the party of miners who had quit California only to touch off the Oregon gold rush of 1862 when they found gold in Canyon Creek south of John Day.
          I continued down 49 to Placerville where they were having a festival complete with parade. Traffic was backed up for a mile and it took me over an hour just to get across Hwy 50 and through the two-block town (Placerville is at the junction of east/west 50 and north/south 49). The day was hot – over 100 degrees – and there was a cop in the street directing traffic under the blazing sun. I gave him an ice-cold can of Pepsi from my ice chest. Just a little ways ahead of me, a couple guys on chopped and raked Harleys – ape-hangers, straight pipes, bobbed fenders – twisted their throttles and thundered up the hill out of town like desperados who'd just knocked off a stagecoach – an image and sound that thrilled me and planted a seed that would bear fruit about 12 years later. Not that I ever robbed a stagecoach but I did get a Harley.
          I followed 49 on down through Plymouth, Dry Town, Amador City, Sutter, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill and all the way to Angels Camp where I prowled around a bit to see the vestiges of Mark Twain's time in Calaveras County. I headed back north on 49 before turning east across the Sierras on 4 and then north again on 88. I camped up in the mountains somewhere south of Tahoe, and the next day went to Virginia City, scratched around in the city's 19th century garbage dump where I found an old snuff box, toured the museum in Carson City, and locked the keys in my car at Harold's in Sparks. After sundown, I took twisty highway 50 westbound back over the mountains, putting my road-hugging Mustang through its paces and managing to miss dozens of deer by mere inches.
          I don't recall the next few hundred miles, but I know I didn't go to the coast, so I'm pretty sure I took Hwy 99 down through Lodi, Modesto, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield, but that part of the trip is a total blank to me now. My next clear recollection is of driving west through Topanga Canyon (a canyon I'd ride through in a rusted-out Mustang Fastback piloted by LSD guru Thaddeus Golas a few years later), taking a right at the Pacific Coast Highway (California 1) and driving that magical strip of the PCH up to Surfrider Beach at Malibu. As a fledgling skateboarder, wannabe surfer, and faithful reader of Surfer Magazine, hanging out at Malibu was heaven to me. 

          The Malibu of my mind had been formed by early 60's music and movies, and the Malibu I actually encountered was so much like the one I had imagined, there was a time-warpy feel to being there. Bikinis and board shorts; palm-frond lean-tos; a volleyball net; the pier; perfect little barrels peeling right and left.  The names of legendary Malibu surfers Johnny Fain and Mickey Dora were still scrawled on the wall as its only graffiti. I half expected to run into Moondoggie and Gidget.  There was a sun-addled beach hippy in a comically huge sombrero dragging a big burlap bag behind him that was tethered to his waist with a rope. He was picking up cans and bottles on the beach, making a big production of each find, holding it up to the sun, examining it from every angle, and then sky-hooking it into the bag. Or near it, anyway. I ran into him a couple more times over the ensuing few years. He lived at the mouth of Malibu Canyon in the thickets of the dry wash behind the old shopping center where the theater was. The theater was a popular place to sleep as it screened movies all night and management didn't kick anyone out between showings. When I got back to my car, I found on the windshield a handbill for a screening of Five Summer Stories, a classic early 70's surfing documentary, soundtrack by Honk, who became one of my favorite bands and I saw in Seattle a couple years later. They still play together once a year to a packed house at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. I hope to be there for it next year.
          Somewhere along the PCH, I picked up some hitchhikers who'd never seen skis before. Imagine that – they went from never having seen skis to sharing a seat with a pair! Without a ski rack, my skis were inside my car, lying diagonally from back left to front right, the tails wedged into the corner of the back left seat, the bindings between the two front bucket seats, and the tips butted right against the glove compartment. The guys wanted to know what the hell I was doing with skis in Malibu, and when I told them I'd skied Shasta but decided to come down and check out the surf scene at Malibu, they thought I was on the coolest adventure ever. I liked that.
          As adventures go, I suppose the trip I just recounted doesn't strike anyone else as something special, but as my first solo road trip, it occupies a special place in my heart. In some ways, my life today is a continuation of that trip, suggesting that its impact really was as strong as I recall. As I write this, I've been on the road and camping for the last three weeks. It's only May and I've camped more than 30 nights already this year. Yesterday morning, I awoke in my tent in Kingman, AZ, around 6:00 and was on westbound I-40 by 7:30.  Around noon I was filling the tank in Barstow, and by late afternoon I arrived here in Midpines up near the west entrance to Yosemite. I'll visit Yosemite today, work in Mariposa over the weekend, and then head on up 99 or 49 on Sunday or Monday. Full circle.
          Early in my trip in July '74, on the night I drove through the walnut orchards between Redding and Marysville, I scribbled a note to myself: “If I ever give a young person advice, it will be to take a driving trip, alone, without a schedule or a destination.” I actually did give that advice for awhile, but I don't think anyone took it, or if they did, they never reported back to me that they were positively impacted by it.  But it worked for me. My first adventure was formative. Over 40 years later, I'm still on the road and loving every minute of it.

#6: Mom

Gregg Evans

If I have done anything in life worth attention,
I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother.
Booker T. Washington

          My mom came down to our place for lunch the other day.  Maria and I live in the old neighborhood, just down the hill from Mom, so I was able to give her a call spur of the moment and invite her down for a bite to eat when we realized we were going to have more of Maria's fabulous nachos (and my rather good guacamole) than we could polish off by ourselves.  As we engaged in our version of multi-tasking – chatting while watching the Mariners game on the tube – conversation turned to my business travels and eventually made its way to my website. She'd never seen it.  She has a Facebook account, so I wondered if she'd read any of my blog posts, seeing how I put links to them on Facebook. No, she hadn't read any of my blogs. Apparently, she goes on Facebook even less than Maria does – a level of infrequency that hovers between never and I-looked-at-it-last-month. After explaining to her what a blog was and how it could exist on Facebook and on my website simultaneously, I opened my latest blog post on my phone and handed the phone to her. “You want me to read this?” she asked. I indicated the affirmative and she started reading, glancing up at the Mariners' at-bat from time to time. After close to a minute of reading, she asked/observed, “Oh, this is about you?” I think I might have rolled my eyes.  “Well, yes. Yes, it is. It's about me. And by me, too. I wrote it.” Disabused of the notion that I was making her read some random article about the Nuremburg Defense, she returned to reading my blog, more interested, I suspect, knowing I'd written it.
          She read all five of my story blogs in one sitting. Really liked them, too. She wondered if I'd ever thought about writing a book (of course I had) and if my brothers had read my posts (not likely). A couple days later, she payed me an extraordinary compliment, comparing my story-telling favorably to that of Daniel James Brown whose #1 New York Times–bestselling Boys In The Boat she is presently reading for a second time. I regarded that as high praise even after factoring in her maternal bias and unflagging Robert Schuller-inspired positivity, and as a result, I immediately went from being annoyed at her ignorance of my blog's existence to being thrilled by her assessment of its contents.
          As Mother's Day approaches, I am wondering, yet again, who this person is, this other human being I've always called Mom. What do I know about her? She was 25 when my existence began in early September, 1956, and 25 still when I was born on May 7, 1957. She's been the constant in my life since then, but who is she?  This sort of question never fails to intrigue me.  Regarding the mystery that every human being is to every other, Charles Dickens wrote:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon [is] that every human creature
is constituted to be a profound secret and mystery to every other. 
A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night,
[is] that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret;
that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret;
that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there,
is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
A Tale of Two Cities, chapter 3

          Sometimes I look at pictures from my mom's childhood and wonder, “Who was that girl? What was she like? What kinds of thoughts did she have? What were her hopes?” And when I ask those questions, I have no answers because, of course, I didn't know her then, and even now I barely know the one whose beating heart gave beat to mine. I'm not saying that my mom is a greater mystery to me than yours is or was to you, I'm saying that every person, even one's own mother, is a mystery to every other. That's the universal truth and “wonderful fact” that Dickens was reflecting on when he wrote, “every human creature is constituted to be a profound secret and mystery to every other . . . a secret [even] to the heart nearest it!” I'm not claiming an unusual or extreme case of this mystery, I'm just narrowing down that universal truth to a personal one – the truth that my mom is a mystery to me simply because she is another human being. We lived under the same roof for 19 years, and after being away for almost three decades I'm back in the old neighborhood and see her often, so of course I know her - I know aspects of her personality, some of her idiosyncrasies, her basic likes, dislikes and values, her taste in music, etc. - but still, she's a wonderful mystery to me.
          My mom comes from pioneer stock. On her dad's side, the family line is traced directly back to Thomas Dustin and Hannah Emerson, born in 1652 and 1657, respectively, in two of the original 13 colonies, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  Thomas and Hannah's great-great-grandson, Dudley Bailey Dustin, brought his family to the Willamette Valley of Oregon in 1849, fairly early for Oregon. On my mom's maternal side, her grandfather, Aaron Cornelius Hall, was born in Ohio in 1838, led wagon trains to California and Oregon as a teenager in the late 1850's, and arrived at Canyon Creek near John Day, Oregon, in 1862, with the party that discovered gold there, triggering the Oregon gold rush.
          Aaron and his wife, Mary (he was 60 years old when they wed) and their seven children (three from Mary's previous marriage and four of their own) lived south of town in a house set back and well-hidden from the road, and being sort of out of the way like that, they had long wondered why they got so many hobos showing up at their door. A son who did some drifting himself for a time finally figured it out: an inconspicuous pair of crossed sticks at the side of the road, placed there by a hobo to be noticed by those who knew to look for it, was the hobo code marking a house where all were welcome and no one was ever turned away.  That was the home of my mom's grandparents; the home where my mom's mom grew up; a home where hospitality, generosity, love, and racial equality were lived values.
          Sam McDonald was a recipient of those Hall values.  Though Sam went on to became a beloved member of the Stanford University community, working there in a non-academic capacity from 1903-1953, he was a destitute teenage grandson of slaves when Aaron and Mary took him into their home. The brief time he spent there had a big impact on him. Writing 54 years later in his book Sam McDonald's Farm (Stanford University Press, 1954), Sam still had vivid memories of life with my great grandparents in Canyon City, Oregon:

Mr. Aaron Cornelius Hall . . . had many acres and raised horses and cattle. I collected part of my wages at seventy-five cents per day in cash, and applied the other part at one dollar per day toward the purchase of two horses. These cost twenty-five dollars apiece and were to be used for my return trip to California. The Halls were wonderful people . . . In my short employment they came to think of me as part of the family, and Mr. Hall promised me my pick of one of his three hundred head of range horses should I return to them again. My pack was sufficiently laden with food by Mrs. Hall to supply my needs for several days of my journey. At a breakfast unsurpassed on any table in those parts, sadness came over me when all gathered to wish me farewell. And so at last on October 11, 1900, I was off to begin my journey [back to California] . . . I started from Canyon City with three horses, the one for which I had traded my bicycle and the two which I had purchased with my labor.

          My mom is a mystery to me, but with stories like the one above, I know where she gets her kindness, generosity and goodness.  She not only comes from pioneer stock, she comes from good people; salt of the earth people.

          Just a couple months shy of her 85th birthday, my mom is still very active and healthy, lives on her own in the house I grew up in, still drives. She takes care of her granddaughter (daughter of my deceased brother, Gary) a couple days a week and visits friends who can't get out on their own anymore, driving them around for shopping, picking up meds or getting them to their doctor appointments.
          Almost 40 years ago, I was off on one of my teenage adventures, camping in Kauai's remote Kalalau Valley. Digging through my backpack after a few weeks of playing caveman, I came across a brown paper bag I didn't remember packing (didn't remember because I hadn't). Inside, I found a mirror and a greeting card. The front of the greeting card was a cartoon bug in sunglasses laying on its back on a green leaf, just soaking up some rays without a care in the world.  Except for the number of legs, that bug was a dead ringer for me at the time. Inside the card was a $20 bill and a note from my mom. In addition to a caution about not placing the mirror in a way that its reflection could start a fire (!) and an apology for sneaking it into my pack and thereby adding to the weight I carried for 11 miles along the rugged Na Pali coast, she wrote:

Wherever you are and whatever you're doing,
I hope you are having fun and that your adventure
is everything you hoped it would be.
When you look in this mirror,
know that you see someone we love very much
and look forward to seeing again between his adventures.
The $20 is to tuck away and forget about
until you're down to your last
and need it for fun or an emergency.
Love, Mom

          Who is this person I call Mom? I don't know, but I love her.

Almost Mother's Day, 2016

#5: Just Following Orders

Gregg Evans

          I’m sure you know what the Nuremburg Defense is, if not by name at least by content.  The Nuremburg Defense takes its name from the war crimes trials in Nuremburg, Germany, after WWII, at which several of the defendants claimed, “Befehl ist befehl” (“Orders are orders”).”  In English, the Nuremburg Defense is stated, “I was just following orders.” With this assertion, the war crimes defendants sought to exonerate themselves, or at least mitigate their guilt, by shifting moral and criminal culpability to their superiors – the ones who ordered them to carry out their crimes. Alfred Jodl, the Chief of Operations for the German High Command, remarked, “I don’t see how [the judges] can fail to recognize a soldier’s obligation to obey orders.  That’s the code I’ve lived by all my life.”   Fritz Sauckel, Chief of Slave Labor Recruitment, insisted, “I was given this assignment which I could not refuse.”   In a court of law, a lot of factors go into determining the merit of a Nuremburg Defense, including the status/authority of the one who gave the orders, the relative willingness/cooperation of the one who carried out the orders, the level of duress involved (usually threatened consequences for not obeying), and a handful of other considerations.  We all recognize that there’s a difference between a subordinate who kills to fulfill a superior’s orders, on the one hand, and a cold-blooded murderer, on the other, and that difference is what the Nuremburg defendants tried to claim.  Unfortunately for them, their befehl ist befehl defense didn’t fly in Nuremburg.  Of the 21 major defendants, 18 were found guilty, 11 were sentenced to death and 10 were hanged on October 16, 1946 (Hermann Goering, sentenced to death along with the others, committed suicide on October 15).  Most of us take a dim view of those who plead a Nuremburg Defense – we want people to take responsibility for their actions – but how many of us have ever faced the moral dilemma that arises from being ordered to shoot another human being? I faced that very dilemma myself almost half a century ago at the age of twelve.  I’ll relate that story shortly, but first I need to introduce to you my grandfather, Gael R. Stuart.
          Gael was a big fish in the small pond of Port Townsend, Washington.  He came to Port Townsend late in 1945 at the age of 26 and quickly became a pillar of the community.  He founded the Kiwanis Club the year he arrived, was the high school principal and served as superintendent of schools for decades.  Though he never held or even ran for public office, for about forty years, from 1945-1985, there were few civic improvements in Port Townsend that Gael did not have a direct hand in bringing about.  When things needed to be done in Port Townsend – when a hospital needed to be built, when the library needed to be saved, when Fort Warden needed to be turned into a world class music education center, etc. - Gael was the one who made things happen, writing grants, chairing committees, and winning over the opposition.  In 1961, just 16 years after Gael arrived in Port Townsend, the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce determined that their annual “Man of the Year” award was not sufficient recognition for Gael’s contributions to Port Townsend and Jefferson County, so they created a new award – “Man of the Century” – solely for Gael.  I have the plaque.
          As one of his four grandsons, it was great fun to go downtown (or uptown, for that matter) with Gael.  Everyone knew and liked him.  Shopkeepers and people on the sidewalk greeted him by name, often expressing gratitude for Gael’s latest contribution to the city; former students and school district employees were unfailingly respectful and affectionate, shaking his hand or giving him a hug and thanking him for the positive impact he had on their lives.  To me, Gael seemed like just about the most important man in the world, and in the hierarchy of authorities in my life, he was right at the top, which brings me back to my story, because it was my grandfather, Gael R. Stuart, who ordered me to shoot someone.  Two people, in fact.
          It happened on a duck hunting trip in neighboring Clallam County where Gael and a few of his friends leased a large tract of farm and marshland for their duck hunting club. If you’re from the area and over 60 years old, you might know the place as the McInnes farm.  The duck club members, always limited to eight, were a veritable Who’s Who of Port Townsend royalty – Gael Stuart, Jack Carroll, Harry Plut, Doc Warner, Miles Brown, Dick McCurdy, Doc Scheyer – but that morning, Gael and I had the place all to ourselves and were stationed about 50 yards apart in two of the five or six blinds strategically positioned on the perimeter of the main marsh. Sitting in those blinds for hours on end could be awfully boring, especially for a 12 year old, so when I spotted two people walking along the dike that separated our marsh from the Strait of Juan De Fuca shoreline, I watched them with interest, especially since the entire perimeter of the club’s land, including the dike, was posted against trespassing. I had never seen anyone walking along the dike before, and I wondered what they thought they were doing.  I’d watched them intently for a few minutes when I heard my grandfather yell to me, “Take a crack at them!"
          Take a crack at them? Good grief, that didn’t sound right. I mean, in my family just pointing a real gun at someone was the ultimate no-no – strictly forbidden and a rule never violated – so the command to actually shoot at someone was virtually incomprehensible.
          “What?” I shouted back, hoping my grandfather would hear the reluctance in my voice and rescind the hit order. After all, he didn’t force me to eat food I didn’t like, so maybe he would be similarly forbearing about my distaste for shooting people.
          “Take a crack at them,” he repeated adamantly, adding, “they’re in range.”  Well, no they weren’t.  Gael was always over-estimating the range of my Ithaca model 37 20-guage.  I could spray the couple pretty good from that distance - they'd know they'd been intentionally shot - but they wouldn’t be hurt.  Was that what Gael wanted?  Did he want me to just give them a little warning by shooting at them harmlessly?  Even if that’s all he wanted, shooting at the couple still didn’t seem right.  On the other hand, my grandfather had adamantly told me to shoot them and he surely had a good reason for it.
          What’s a 12 year old to do?  At my age, following the instructions of trusted adults was the overriding principle governing a fair bit of my behavior, and it was definitely a trusted adult telling me to shoot the trespassers. Though my own moral sense argued against shooting them, another part of me argued that my grandfather surely had a better understanding of the situation than I did and could be trusted to guide me in the right direction. I imagined that he knew something about the circumstances that I didn’t; maybe even something about those particular people.  Maybe they were notorious trespassers who had already been warned that they would be shot if they trespassed at the club again.  Gael knew the sheriff – he knew everyone – and probably had the inside scoop on the two on the dike.  Getting sprayed with some lead might be just what they needed to teach them a lesson.
          “Shoot them? Really?” I called back, not so much to get confirmation but to buy the errant couple enough time to drop out of sight on the beach side of the dike.
          “Yes, shoot! Don’t hesitate,” he insisted, “Stand up and take a crack at them.”  There were a few moments of indecision as I weighed my grandfather’s clear and forceful orders against, oh, everything I’d ever been taught about gun ownership. In the end, I decided against shooting the couple, first, because shooting them still seemed wrong even if approved and ordered by the highest authority I knew; second, because I feared no punishment for not obeying – I mean, there was no way I was going to get in trouble for not shooting two complete strangers; and third, because if my grandfather was so eager to have them shot, he could damned well do it himself. After all, he had the 12-gauge Belgian Browning and was the better marksman by far. Fortunately, the couple disappeared on the far side of the dike before either of us were able to “take a crack at them.” 
          A couple hours later, during lunch at The Three Crabs restaurant in nearby Dungeness, I brought up the issue of shooting the trespassers, but as it turned out, I was the only one aware of the issue. Sipping his Manhattan (Up), Gael blushed to learn that I thought he had told me to shoot some beachcombers.  He hadn’t even seen them, much less urged me to shoot them.  Apparently, my interest in, and surveillance of, the trespassers had rendered me oblivious to the several ducks that had flown directly over my blind, easily within range of my 20 gauge. It was ducks, not trespassers, that Gael had urged me to take a crack at! The urgency in his voice had been frustration that I was letting ducks fly over me again and again.
          That incident has provided me with food for thought for almost 50 years. I’m glad I got to wrestle with the moral dilemma of being ordered to shoot someone – I mean, not everyone gets to think through such an order – and I’m certainly glad I didn’t shoot those people, but I’m still haunted by the knowledge that it could have turned out differently.  How long would I have defied my grandfather?  How close had I been to denying my own conscience and following what I thought was Gael’s directive?  All these years later, my general disdain for anyone pleading the Nuremburg Defense is tempered by my personal experience, for had I shot that couple, my honest defense would have been a kid-sized version of, “I was just following orders.”
          It’s been 47 years since I considered shooting those people on the dike.  I’m now nine years older than Gael was then, and Gael’s been gone for 15 years.  I miss the steely gray dawns along the Strait of Juan de Fuca; the crunch of frozen grass underfoot; the bunkhouse and the ramshackle cabin with its pot-bellied stove over which we dried and warmed socks and gloves.  I miss the mallards and spoonbills, the pintails and the teal; the hiss of their cupped wings cutting through the morning air, their last-second adjustments on approach, the mallards’ bright orange landing gear plowing into the black water of the marsh. I found the McInnes farm on Google Earth the other night.  I think the cabin and bunkhouse are still there, but the marshes, the blinds and the slick, narrow planks we walked to get to them are gone.  Even the dike is gone and a dozen beachfront homes have taken its place.  I wonder if the couple from the dike that morning are still together or even still alive.  They never knew that a 12 year old kid had once wrestled with an order to shoot them. 

#4: Near Death On The Oregon Coast

Gregg Evans

          Have you ever been to the Oregon Coast? The shoreline is generally rugged, the water is frigid and the ocean named Peace can be angry and violent. Swells roll in from storms or seismic events thousands of miles away, pitching into waves as they encounter shallow water and exploding in spectacular collisions with jagged, rocky sea stacks and cliffs. There are “sneaker” waves – monsters compared to others in their group – that can engulf an entire beach in an instant and sweep away in their backwash virtually anything not anchored in place. Though there are relatively safe places to swim and surf, relatively is the operative word, for the entire coast abounds with rip currents, undertows and assorted other dangers.
          For all its dangers and violence, the Oregon Coast is also stunningly beautiful, and of the hundreds of gorgeous viewpoints along the coast, one of the most accessible and picturesque is at Ecola State Park, just north of the quaint town of Cannon Beach.  A long, winding road through a thick evergreen forest heavy with moss and ferns brings you first to the big parking lot and access to Crescent Beach.  Surfers go a couple miles farther to where the road ends at Indian Beach.  No one surfs Crescent.  I decided to surf Crescent.
          In his thoroughly engaging book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurance Gonzales, who has studied hundreds of tragedies around the world, writes: “I found otherwise rational people doing inexplicable things to get themselves killed – against all advice, against all reason.” He could have been writing specifically about me. I had no business paddling out at Ecola’s Crescent Beach.  None.  It was absolutely absurd.  Worse than absurd, actually.  It was asinine. A three-quarter mile stretch of almost deserted beach, no one else in the water (not just that day, ever), massive fifteen foot waves breaking a few hundred yards from shore, gorgeous spindrift blowing back over their crests.  I don’t recall having a death wish, but I can’t think of any other explanation.  Oh, except sheer stupidity.  Yes, that’s what it was: sheer stupidity.  If I got into trouble out there, as I necessarily would under the circumstances, I would deserve it. And if I died, as was likely, people reading about my death would have been justified in joking about the efficiency of natural selection and how my death surely improved the gene pool going forward – one less idiot reproducing.  Did I mention it was asinine?  That’s a good word for it, though not nearly strong enough.
          I was so tired by the time I was halfway to the break, and so beat up from fighting through wall after punishing wall of whitewater, that I came to my senses and realized that I really needed to turn around and get back to shore without delay.  I'd be lying if I said that I came to that realization “just in the nick of time.”  The truth is, I had missed the nick of time.  It was too late for getting back to shore without delay.  If I made it back at all, it would involve a life-and-death struggle, because I was in trouble, and the trouble was at least two-fold.
          First, there was a rip that was pulling me out faster than any of the waves were pushing me in.   A wall of white would push me in the right direction for a few seconds, which was a good thing in spite of the violence it entailed, but it would eventually engulf me and when I popped up behind it, the rip stream would carry me out until the next wall assaulted me.  If you’ve ever been to the ocean, you’ve probably seen the uprush of water onto the beach followed by the backwash of that same water returning to sea, and if you’ve ever tried to stand against the backwash, you’ve noticed how fast and powerful it is.  Well, a rip current is sort of like that in speed and power – it’s like a river flowing on the surface of the ocean away from the shore, and paddling against it is impossible.  Though I knew that the general rule about being caught in a rip was to ride it out while paddling at an angle to eventually escape its clutches, I believed it would be certain death if I let that current take me out.  I mean, if that happened, I’d be just as tired as I already was – probably even more so – but I’d be tired a mile out in the ocean, being tossed, turned, thrown and swept this way and that.  I was already in a bad place, but a mile farther out?  Too scary to contemplate.  I needed to get out of the rip no matter what.
          I paddled sideways with all my might, aided by panic-generated adrenaline and, with the help of a few broken waves that pushed me and supplemented my paddling, I managed to escape the rip in about 20 minutes without being pulled too far out.  Unfortunately, my escape from the rip positioned me for trouble #2.  I was now in line to meet up with the collection of sentinel rocks – jagged sea stacks – off the south end of the beach.  The icy water was churning wildly around those stacks, boiling and swirling, with foam and spray bursting into the air as wave after wave pummeled them.  I was about 100 yards west of them and heading in a generally eastward direction.
          My arms already felt like lead, totally spent from the frantic paddling I’d put into escaping the rip.  I was physically almost helpless, and mentally close to despair, realizing I had nothing to offer the situation in the way of remedy.  It occurred to me that I could very easily die out there. Not just that it was theoretically possible but that it was actually likely and, barring a miracle, almost inevitable.  No one was coming to save me; help wasn’t on its way – the ocean would do whatever it wanted, completely indifferent to my plight.  It was weird to think about the ocean’s indifference to my dying. I loved the ocean, but now that I was about to die in it, I wasn’t loving it so much.  Now it seemed an enemy; a cold, deep, dark, powerful enemy.  A surfer gets a notion that he or she has a personal relationship with the ocean – and I think there’s something to that – but it's a one-sided thing. The ocean isn’t a person; you can’t reason with it; it is indifferent to humans; it just does its thing.  The ocean didn’t owe me any favors and wouldn’t extend me any grace; it wasn't going to behave in some special way for me; it wasn’t going to let me off the hook for my stupidity.  Rather, it would just keep coming, swell after swell, wave after wave, and I was very likely going to die in it.  I had great clarity about that at the time – it was something I was thinking about even as I was assessing my options and directing my arms and legs to maneuver to give me a chance at survival.  I was only a little sad about the idea of dying – somehow, I took that idea sort of matter-of-factly and thought about it stoically – but what fascinated me was knowing it in advance. It seemed special, like a rare privilege, to both know I was going to die and also have a little time to think about. The day of my death had arrived.  I even said to myself, "This is the day I'm going to die. Right here today at Ecola. How weird to think about."  It was just another weekend on the coast with Maria; entirely like all the others except for my death.
          As I rolled, spun and drifted ever closer to the unforgiving mountains of rock, I would glance to the beach from time to time to see if Maria was panicking or anything.  The beach was so close yet impossibly far; I could see her looking my way, but I had no idea what she was thinking.  This was in 1981, so Maria didn’t have a cell phone to call 911.  Also, she and I hadn’t come up with a signal system for me to indicate desperate need for help, so even if she was concerned, she didn’t know if her concern was valid.  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked; maybe I was making progress on a plan I’d come up with for getting to the beach safely.  She didn’t want to jump the gun; she didn’t want to ask anyone for help if it wasn’t really needed. Even if she had decided that the situation was deathly serious, there would have been that little bit of lag time between decision and action – that minute of indecisive panic when no alternative seems right. If I was dying out in the ocean, how could she leave?  But on the other hand, if I was dying there, how could she not go for help?  If she decided to go for help, she would be leaving me to die alone, not even watched.  And she would have had to run the entire length of the beach – well over half a mile – and then climb the steep embankment/cliff to its top, and then across to the parking lot.  It would likely have been a 20 minute adrenaline-fueled venture just to reach the car.  And then what?  Maybe she’d first waste several minutes frantically looking for a park ranger (the ranger station wasn’t manned when we got there).  Eventually, she’d take off to Cannon Beach – a 10 minute drive at least – all the while freaking out about my situation: maybe I was already dead, maybe dying on the rocks, maybe pulled out to sea, or maybe on the beach and needing help and she wasn’t there!  These were thoughts I actually had while being pitched this way and that in the waves.
          I tried to paddle toward shore and away from the rocks, but my arms just splashed the water.  I was so tired, I couldn’t angle my arms to paddle – I could only lift and drop them.  Lift, drop, lift, drop; splash, splash.  With a foot, I was able to push off the wall of a stack, forestalling impact but putting no real distance between us. I had arrived at the stacks between sets of waves, fortunate that I was dealing with more of an ebb and flow rather than wall after wall of whitewater.  But the broken waves would come soon enough; it was only a matter of time.  I pushed off another wall of rock, or maybe it was the same one, and this time, I actually shot away from it a fair distance - ten feet or more.  Gliding on the water following that push-off felt like soaring through the air after all my useless dead-armed flailing and splashing. It was wonderful.  I was still dangerously close to the rocks, but that little glide was my first moment of progress since escaping the rip current, and it gave me hope.
          Buoyed in spirit by that tiny victory, I decided a final attempt at survival was in order and pointed my seven foot six inch canary yellow Jacobs toward the beach.  Adrenalin gone, I spent my last bit of physical strength lifting and dropping my arms in the most paddle-like motion I could muster - basically, more splashing - but what happened next was one of the greatest thrills of my life.  In spite of sensing no shoreward thrust from my sorry attempts at paddling, I suddenly felt The Lift – that magical hydraulic board-grab – that tells a surfer he has caught, or been caught by, a wave.  It's a phenomenal sensation; like you've just been plugged into the ocean and there is a oneness between you and it.  Now, being caught by that wall of white was not my own doing – I can take no credit for it – but apparently I was in perfect position to have my board caught by an incoming mountain of surf and I was lifted, shot and pushed shoreward effortlessly, and it was even angling left, taking me away from, rather than into, the rocks.  And this time, I wasn’t engulfed in the turbulent nightmare but was carried along for 50 yards or more and then thrown forward as the wall collapsed and turned into uprushing swash.  I rode that baby until the skeg of my board dug into the sand and brought me to a sudden stop.  As the uprush flowed past me and swept onto the beach, I knelt and lifted my board out of the water so that it and I wouldn’t be dragged out by the backwash to come.
          I stood up and stumbled toward the beach, making it to the upper wet hardpack just short of the dry sand.  I dropped to the ground in utter exhaustion where Maria met me, elated to be alive but too physically and emotionally spent to say so.  I guess I was in shock.  I just sat there shivering and mumbling about how stupid I'd been. Maria peeled off my wetsuit and wrapped a towel around me. I’d been in the water for a full hour, but it seemed like a lifetime. Being on the beach seemed like a dream, but I was wide awake – awake and feeling more alive than ever for having come so close to death.
          As I think about it now, I realize that maybe the ocean did behave in a special way that day; maybe the ocean's indifference wasn't the only thing at work.  Maybe the Man of Easter intervened, rescuing me from Death by commanding a wave to take me to shore.  I'd like to think so. "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him." (Matthew 8:27). 

35 years later, Easter 2016

#3: Calling Distance

Gregg Evans

          Calling distance.  Do you remember that?  It was the distance your parents' voices could be expected to carry when you were playing.  “Don’t get out of calling distance” meant you were to stay within earshot so you could hear your mom or dad if one of them called you.
          Our family camped a lot as my three brothers and I were growing up, and whenever we arrived at a new campground, “Don’t get out of calling distance” was the customary (and virtually only) limitation on our freedom.  The four of us boys would pile out of the car or Jeep, and as my parents set up the campsite, our primary assignment – our sole responsibility, really – was to not get in the way.  We were expected to play and explore, avoid serious injury, not drown, poke no one’s eye out and, more than anything else, make ourselves scarce so that my parents could set up camp without us getting in the way.  And we were to do all this while staying within calling distance.
          The funny thing about calling distance is, you don’t know when you’re out of it.  I mean, how could you?  Think about it.  Being called while outside calling distance sounds precisely the same as not being called while in it!  How’s a kid to know he or she is out of calling distance if it sounds just like being in it?
          Soon after arriving at any new campground, I would be out in the woods scouting the area and doing my normal reconnaissance of trails, hiding places, shortcuts and climbable trees, and I’d get farther and farther from camp, of course, as way led to way, and if I didn’t hear my mom call, I’d invariably attribute it to her not calling rather than to me not being within calling distance.  I wouldn’t know that I’d been out of calling distance until I got back to camp and heard the unpleasant greeting, “And where have you been, young man?  I’ve been calling and calling. I told you not to get out of calling distance.”  And my self-incriminating excuse would be that I hadn’t heard her.
          In today’s post, I want to apply the idea of “calling distance” to an entirely different type of call – the internal call to adventure that I listened to in my late teens and early 20’s but somehow stopped hearing as the years rolled by.  You might remember that my last blog post ended with me standing at the side of Highway 101 resolving, like James Taylor, to “never stop my wandering.”  I promised myself that I would stay within adventure’s calling distance, and for a few years, I made good on that promise. I listened to the call of adventure and even amplified it through an eclectic mix of books I read: Peter Dixon’s Men Who Ride Mountains (surfing); Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (road/drug tripping); Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva (back to nature on a Marquesan island); Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (disdain for, and eventual flight from, the hypocrisy and fakery of civilization); Jack Wheeler’s The Adventurer’s Guide (a normal guy tells about his fabulous adventures all over the world); a dozen books about pioneers, frontiersmen, mountain men, prospectors and the California and Klondike gold rushes; and of course, Kerouac’s On the Road.  In the latter, I was especially struck by Sal Paradise’s description of a fellow traveler as

. . . crossing and recrossing the country every year, south in the winter and north in the summer, and only because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere . . . 

          There was nowhere to go but everywhere – that notion lodged itself in my heart and called me to go.  As a wannabe surfer, I heard adventure’s call and took off for Southern California upon high school graduation.  I woke up from that dream when most of my belongings were stolen in my first week in Malibu, but still, I was listening to adventure’s call.  Thumbing my way back to Washington, I heard adventure calling me to do more of that, and I hitchhiked the west coast half a dozen times in the subsequent few years.  Hearing the call of adventure, a friend and I hatched a plan to go to Snowbird, Utah, where we envisioned ourselves becoming ski bums and working our way up to sweet jobs.  He broke his leg that fall and we didn’t push through with the plan, but hey, we were listening to, and making plans based on, adventure’s call.  Responding to the call of adventure, I took extended camping trips to the Na Pali coast of Kauai, trying to replicate Heyerdahl’s life on Fatu-Hiva.  Adventure was calling and I was responding.  There was nowhere to go but everywhere, and that’s where I was headed - everywhere!  Or so I thought.

The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.
                                             J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister

          Sometime between ages 18 and 59 (and a lot closer to the former than to the latter), I strayed out of calling distance and abandoned my resolve to never stop my wandering.  I went to college instead of the Marquesas, met my wife, we got jobs, and we started living a life in which me taking off on a hitchhiking trip or spending months in a cave on Kauai just didn’t fit.  "Life happened," as they say, and as a result of living outside adventure’s calling distance, here I am almost 60 years old and I haven’t circumnavigated the globe by sailboat, taken “the long way around” on a motorcycle, climbed Kilimanjaro, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, run with the bulls in Pamplona, rafted the Irrawaddy or seen Machu Picchu.  I haven’t had any of the adventures I once dreamed of. 
          Then again, now that I am thinking about it, I'm realizing that I've had some adventures after all. While it’s true that I haven’t done any of the exotic adventures that I envisioned as a young man, I’ve had some pretty cool adventures nonetheless.  I’ve looked into the eyes of orangutans in Kotakinabalu; been robbed of bananas by monkeys in Ubud; watched the famed surf-break Uluwatu breaking in perfect barrels; scanned the horizon of Mongolia from the Great Wall; gazed at the Todai-ji Daibutsuden; watched a few months' worth of glorious sunsets from Boracay (and from Amanpulo); climbed Mt. Pinatubo and swam in its lake; rung the bell at Kimnyong Maze (not so adventurous, but a pretty cool little place); almost fainted from heat and claustrophobia in the Chu-Chi tunnels; shopped in the warren that is the Chatuchak market; walked the length of the Wye Valley; motorcycled Big Sur . . .  
          Come to think of it, I've had a pretty adventurous life. Maybe not so adventurous as the ones I once imagined, but I've had some adventures - lots of them - including some that I didn't even recognize as adventures until after the fact. I had somehow convinced myself that I had wandered out of adventure's calling distance, yet the fact is I didn't.   
          Hey, adventure, call me anytime!  I'm listening!
 

 

 

#2: The Trailer Park, the Fence and the Field

Gregg Evans

          One fine spring sunrise 40 years ago, under a California Sycamore in a field fronting Hwy 101 between San Jose and Gilroy, I woke to a pleasant mix of morning sounds - birds chattering in the branches overhead, light morning traffic 100 yards away, a spade breaking dirt in the tiny garden of a mobile home in the adjacent trailer park – and the not-so-pleasant feeling of morning sun baking the contents – me! – of my goose-down sleeping bag.  The discomfort of the heat drove me from my sleeping bag to air myself out and take stock of my surroundings.
          I'd been dropped off just before midnight, so I was now getting my first look at the place I'd bedded down.  Before me lay a broad, fallow field, its plowed furrows running parallel to the highway for several hundred yards.  Behind me and not more than 15 feet away was a low fence separating the field from a tidy mobile home park. And all around me, to my chagrin, was a veritable minefield of dog doo. 
Apparently, 15 feet is the average flight distance of a shovelful of dog crap heaved over a low fence.  Amazingly, I had walked to this spot and laid out my sleeping bag in the dark of night without stepping or lying in any of the scores of piles of dog excrement dotting the immediate landscape. 
          On the other side of the fence, the spade was being worked by a fit old guy with bronze skin and silver hair.  He might not have been much older than I am now, but to my 18 year old eyes, he looked pretty old. The two of us weren’t but 20 feet apart and the fence was low and insubstantial enough that we could see each other and exchange good-mornings, which we did.  He quizzed me about where I was from (Tacoma, WA), what I was up to (hitchhiking), and where I was headed (south).  He insisted that I must have a destination in mind (no, just a direction) and asked if I didn't need to get back to a job or something (nope).  I thought maybe he was taking a dim view of my lack of itinerary, but at the end of the interview, he announced, to my surprise, “I've got half a mind to jump this fence and join you.”  Delighted by his response (and reasonably sure that the other half of his mind would prevail), I played along and invited, “Come on over.”  He laughed and motioned with his hands to draw attention to his trailer and little garden plot and asked with good humor, “And leave all this?  I'm stuck here. Enjoy your trip for both of us.”  He wondered if I'd like a cup of coffee before taking off, but I wasn't yet a coffee drinker and didn't want to delay my start that day anyway. I didn't have anywhere to go but didn't want to get there too late!  He went back to scratching at the dirt and I finished stuffing my sleeping bag and strapped it to my pack.
          I slung my backpack onto my right shoulder, worked my left elbow and arm through that side's shoulder strap, and gave the pack and myself one good in-unison bounce to set everything in place.  I turned an analytical eye to the strip of dirt between me and the highway, mentally plotting my zig-zaggy route through the fecal minefield.  Ready to go, I called over the fence, “Last chance.”  My new friend leaned on his spade, shook his head no resignedly, and raised his hand in a gesture that seemed at once a wave good-bye, a salute, and a surrender to circumstance.  I nodded my understanding, turned, and, after a couple giant steps and a few side steps, tramped out to the highway.  Crossing to the southbound side, I stuck out my thumb.
         
As I stood there on the shoulder of 101, I had time to reflect on the morning.  Enough time, in fact, to interpret it.  I decided that the trailer park was a metaphor for being stuck in one place; the field and the highway were freedom; and the fence represented the responsibilities, demands and expectations that would one day bring an end to my wandering.  Oh, and all that dog crap - it represented all the stuff I'd have to dodge in order to enjoy my freedom. 
          About a year earlier, James Taylor had released Gorilla, and the chorus of my favorite song from that LP came to mind as I stood at the side of the highway:

I've been wanderin' early and late
From the New York City to the Golden Gate
And it don't look like
I'll ever stop my wanderin'
No, it don't look like
I'll ever stop my wanderin'

          Backpack at my feet, sun on my cheek, smile on my face, song in my heart and thumb in the air, I resolved to stay on the freedom side of the fence as long as I could; to keep the fence low enough to jump if ever I found myself on the stuck side of it; to always watch where I stepped; and to never stop my wandering. 

#1: Travel Stories and The Road Not Taken

Gregg Evans

          Wherever travelers gather, travel stories abound. Whether the travelers are backpackers, hitchhikers, motorcyclists, boaters, backcountry pilots, paddlers, pedalers, horse packers or 4-wheel adventurers, stories are told of routes followed, decisions made, dangers faced and challenges overcome. Telling our travel stories is just part of the travel/adventure lifestyle.
          Travel stories have been entertaining us humans for as long as we've been around to tell and hear them. Iliad and Odyssey have enthralled readers for millennia, as have the books of Genesis and Exodus - travel stories all.  Some of my favorite books are travel stories.  I think of Kerouac's On The Road, Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. There is just something about travel stories!
          Over the last couple decades, I've spent a lot of time at gatherings of motorcyclists, and at every one of them, stories from the road have been standard fare. The stories are as varied as the riders that tell them, of course, but common themes include an element of danger, or extreme difficulty, or near disaster averted by split-second maneuvering and/or extraordinary riding skill. No one ever calls "bull shit" when travel tales are being told, but whenever I hear a rider launch into a story, I think of the last stanza of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          Though The Road Not Taken is one of the best known poems ever written, in some ways, it is barely known at all.  I say it is barely known because people routinely get the title wrong, calling it The Road Less Traveled instead of The Road Not Taken, and tend to misunderstand its meaning, believing it to be a paean to individualism, which it isn't, rather than a confession of travel-story misrepresentation, which it is. To arrive at their misunderstanding of the poem, people focus on the last three lines:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          Taken out of their context and isolated from the rest of the poem, those three lines do sound like praise for choosing the road less traveled, but that's definitely not what Frost was saying, for earlier in the poem, he had clarified that the two roads were actually the same, neither showing any less or more wear than the other. Though Frost had initially tried to convince himself that the second road looked less traveled than the first, he had to admit, after comparing them, that the two roads were equally trod. That admission is an important aspect of the poem's development and is the key to understanding its final stanza.
          After establishing in the first three stanzas that the two roads looked the same and that neither had a legitimate claim to being less traveled than the other, Frost ends the poem by imagining a future where he would be reminiscing about the choice he made between those two roads.  Though in reality it was a choice that could have been made by flipping a coin, that's not how he would tell it:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

          In this imagined future, Frost sees himself telling about the decision he made between those two roads, explaining to his hearers that he had chosen the less traveled road and that doing so had made all the difference. That's how he would tell the story – he would say he'd intentionally taken the road less traveled – but in reality, he hadn't taken a less traveled road at all because there hadn't been a less traveled road to take! He had chosen between two equally traveled roads, but in telling his travel story, he would spin it to make himself sound more adventurous.  He would fib about taking a less traveled road and also inflate the importance of having done so ("And that has made all the difference").  From this we understand that the poem is not a paean to individualism but a confession of self-serving factual misrepresentation.
          I think of The Road Not Taken whenever I hear someone launch into a travel story. I don't begrudge the storyteller the self-serving spin they will almost certainly put on their story - it's usually the most interesting part, after all - but I definitely do listen for it and say to myself, "Ah, yes, there it is," when I hear it.  A dozen times over the last few years I've wanted to respond to a story by asking, "And that has made all the difference?" but I've always biten my tongue.  After all, calling "bull shit" in such a circumstance would be no less rude for being poetic.
          There are a lot of things I imagine myself writing about in this blog - products I sell, companies I represent, travelers and adventurers I meet, events I vend at - but I'm pretty sure I'll return again and again to stories of my own travel and camping experiences – trips I’ve taken, places I've been and things I've done.  I suppose those stories will be my own version of, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  In telling my stories, I'll no doubt put myself in a favorable light, perhaps even by resorting to factual misrepresentations. I'll try to keep those to a minimum, but you should feel free to tell yourself, "Ah, yes, there it is," when you hear them.