Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Reasons I’m Excited about Writing on a Windjammer

Writing on a Windjammer is an event with award-winning author, Pam Houston, on the historic Maine schooner, Isaac H. Evans. More at


I know I’ve been focused, perhaps overly focused, alright maybe mildly (or wildly) obsessed about the Sep. 30th through Oct. 3rd 2014 event, Writing on a Windjammer. Here are ten reasons why:

Reasons 1-5 are obvious. I’ve written about them before, but here’s a quick recap.

1) Pam Houston. She’s a talented, award-winning writer and a damn fun writing teacher. I love her work, and I’m thrilled she wanted to teach on a boat.

2) Captain Brenda Thomas. She’s been a hero of mine since she bought the Evans. She’s been a friend for even longer. I can’t wait to sail with her.

3) The Isaac H. Evans. Every boat in the Maine windjammer fleet is a treasure. I’ve sailed on three; I hope one day to have sailed on them all.

4) The coast of Maine. I fell in love with the stunning, rocky, and rugged Maine Coast in fifth grade on my first visit to Camp Chewonki, which I wrote about in another post called Far and Near.

5) Community. Bringing people together who love art and adventure just feels right, and there are some opportunities so unique you don’t have to think; you just have to say yes. I wrote a post about this too—about “saying yes.”

Reasons 6-10 delve further into why I’m smitten with this upcoming adventure.

6) Reason number six? In a word, lobster. Every Maine windjamming cruise features a lobster bake. I worked on Maine windjammers for two summers and spent a third summer as an intern at WoodenBoat Magazine in Brooklin, Maine (they have a weekly lobster bake for the boat school)—so I spent three summers eating lobster at least once a week. Even that wasn’t always enough. On occasion, the captain would buy too much lobster, and we’d end up with a handful left over. My galley buddy, Kim, had infinite patience and would pick the extra tails, claws, and bodies clean to make lobster dip or quiche. One week, she still had too much and called me over and handed me the meat from two lobster tails and insisted I eat them.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I’ve used all I can. Don’t make me throw them away.”

That was all she had to say. I hid in the back corner of the galley/saloon and devoured the lobster like a wild raccoon.

Years later, I returned to Maine after far too great an absence. I’d been living in the Pacific Northwest, where I’d gorged on salmon and oysters but hadn’t eaten lobster in years. I pulled my rental car into a roadside restaurant with window service and bought a $10 lobster roll. I was by myself, so I drove down the road and pulled off at a park with an empty baseball diamond—and as if I thought someone would steal it from me, I furtively ate that lobster roll (just like I’d eaten the lobster tails in the galley). The taste was beyond good; it was criminal—food so good you feel you have to hide it.

7) Lucky reason number seven is stargazing. My first summer on a windjammer, I remember sprawling on the fantail of the Nathaniel Bowditch during the Perseids meteor showers with Gib, our captain, and my galley mate, Kim. We were anchored far from the nearest city. There wasn’t even a small town within view. Only an occasional house light was visible through the woods, and the sky sparkled like celestial caviar across the dome of our vision. We lay there, bundled in hats and fleece because the night air was chill, and we watched star stuff flash across the night.

8) Reading, writing, and talking literature is reason number eight. When I worked on the windjammers, I kept a journal, which I’m currently trying to find. But our days were so exhausting, I typically scratched out a page or two at best, mostly about crew gossip, cross-boat flirting, whale sightings, and being tired. Some nights I tried to read, but inevitably the book would hit my face a few lines in. I’d give up, put the book on the shelf, roll over, and try again the next night. By the end of the season, I’d feel starved for reading. I remember tearing through everything Maya Angelou had written in two days. Even before season’s end, I’d find myself toting books and journals, sometimes to the lobster bake or while up on watch, but the lack of time and physical exhaustion of our days made my efforts more about carrying literary stuff with me than actually getting into it. When the season did end, I’d binge on books and writing as if I’d been on a word diet. I’m beyond excited that this time, reading and writing are on the menu! We’ll be reading Andre Dubus III’s book, Dirty Love, before we sail, and we’ll be writing, talking writing, and sharing writing with each other and with Pam Houston throughout the trip. The only thing better would be if Andre Dubus III were coming too, but there’s always next year.

9) Reason number nine has to do with what Pam Houston calls “glimmers:” things that arrest the senses, adhere to memory—experiences that won’t go unnoticed or unremembered. For me, being on a big traditional schooner is all about glimmers because the very fact of being there forces a new view. Life on a windjammer is different from modern life on land, and being aboard offers a chance to experience a range of new perspectives. One difference is the relationship between inside and outside. On a boat this perspective shifts. It’s not so much inside and outside as on deck and below deck. It’s up and down versus in and out, and that alone creates a mental shift.

Morning exercise can be cranking the anchor off the bottom or hauling sails to the top of the mast. You may huff and puff and sweat just like at the gym, but there’s novelty right aside necessity. If the anchor doesn’t come up, we don’t go. If the sails aren’t set, we don’t sail. And, to flavor the experience, many crews sing traditional sea chanties. It’s exercise and a trip back in time all in one. It’s new language: galley for kitchen, head for bathroom, berth or bunk for bed. It’s a new more intimate relationship with weather. It’s the sound of the sea rushing past the hull. It’s the screeching of the gulls. It’s the smell of cooking wafting from below. It’s life like you’ve never lived it before.

10) Here’s reason number ten: the ephemeral and ineffable. When I was 27, I spent my first season as a cook aboard the schooner, Nathaniel Bowditch. Two of us worked the galley that summer. Our days started at about 4AM and ended at 10 or 11PM—depending on whether or not we had watch. We worked six and a half days a week for less than $200 plus bunk, food, and tips. It was best not to calculate the hourly rate.

One morning mid-summer, I was on deck early, just as the first light was filling the sky, painting it pale blue. My task was to fill three metal pitchers with water from the oak casks on deck. As I ladled the cold water, I looked out around the boat. It was the morning of the Great Schooner Race, so nearly all the boats in the fleet were in the harbor. The water was quiet, so the anchor chains hung straight down. A couple of the boats had left their mainsails up, and they held in the motionless air like weathervanes.

As I looked around I realized I’d never seen anything like the view that morning. These great, graceful ships were so few in number that odds of seeing so many in one location made what I was witnessing a rare spectacle. The scene was also devoid of most evidence of modernity, making it easy to imagine another time altogether. In that moment, I went from loving my exhausting, low-paying summer job to being truly grateful. I knew in that instant that these historic boats could slip from existence. I held my breath.

Monday, April 14, 2014

(This is a just-for-fun short short, which had to be less than 250 words.)

Pink Toes 

Cordelette. Prusik. Pro. I should’ve known these terms. It was lecture one of the intermediate climbing class. I was one of just five women. My lack of qualification was vast as the peaks we planned to scale.

Instead of retreat, I took notes, begged answers, read. I bought a rope, bivy, carabineers, rescue pulley, nut tool, webbing. I learned to tie a double fisherman and made prusiks. I painted my biners with pink nail polish to mark them as mine. I was cramming, learning even, but I was tense.

A friend who’d had taken the class said,

“Don’t worry. The first climb gets rained out. You’ll just go to breakfast.”

Twelve weeks in, I’d made it through the skills outings—though my inexperience had been noted. I was training but still worried about fitness, the weight of my pack, keeping up.

The day arrived. It didn’t rain. I had an hour. I’d packed, repacked, weighed my food, even purchased Dental Dots to replace brush and paste. Dan, our instructor, would soon arrive in his Escort, which, with five climbers shoehorned in and gear atop in a RocketBox, looked comical as a Volkswagen Beetle full of clowns.

Humming with anticipation, I grabbed the pink nail polish. I rarely gussied but needed distraction. I needed to keep from throwing up. I smiled; pink felt fun, secret, a talisman.

Brothers Traverse—a rarely successful first outing. Five made the attempt; four summited; one at the top had pink toes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Boat Lust – or On Being Hooked

On Monday night, just before sunset, Brian and I were at the marina tying up the sailboat we bought last summer, and the conversation started like it always does. A couple of fellas from across the docks lobbed an innocent query our way about what sort of boat ours was, incidentally, a 1980 Cal 31’. We hollered back, and in no time, we’d bonded with a couple of our hooked brethren.

“I got him into all of this,” I yelled, motioning at Brian and smiling proudly.

“She did,” Brian said, smiling at me and then at them.

“I sold my little boat,” I said, “and we got this one last summer, did a bunch of work but mostly had a great time sailing as much as we could.”

“I bet you did. I’m buying my second, a liveaboard, at the end of summer,” one of the men hollered across the water. “That one’ll be 45 or 50 feet. My wife says it needs a washer and dryer, so it’s gonna have to be big. You can see, I’m hooked.”

A conversation about laundry and the fluff and fold service up the road followed, but this is how bonding with members of our lunatic fringe happens. We recognize the crazy, and we cheer. Though, I suppose this is exactly how it happens with everything we humans fall for: hobbies, travel, rock and roll, poetry, opera, stamp collecting, and scuba diving—any passion that’s illogical, indescribable, frequently expensive, and consuming. While it may be difficult to explain our specific brand of insanity to outsiders, we immediately spot members of our own renegade clan.

When it comes to us sailboat nuts, we are indeed a breed. They say the definition of sailing is “long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.” Though I might revise the quote to read something like “long periods of restful tranquility punctuated by moments of panic and shock—typically brought on by docking in wind or viewing one’s account balance upon exiting a marine store.” But despite the fact that our illogical lusts sometimes cause us discomfort and often part us from our pay, I believe our irrational passions are one of the truest things about us—and one of the primary paths that connect us with each other.

Two things have brought all this to the top of my mind. First, I’m enrolled at the University of Washington in a memoir class taught by Theo Pauline Nestor, and I’ve been struggling for two quarters to describe what my old pal, Daniel Bennett, and I referred to as Boat Lust. For Daniel and me that summer, when I was an intern and he was the assistant boat shop manager at WoodenBoat Magazine, Boat Lust meant immediately flipping to the back of each new issue to scan the free boats section—just as one might the classifieds or an online dating site—with hope of seeing the boat that would become The One. Our One just right for us—and, of course, being free, just right for our meager budget. Boat Lust also meant bragging to each other about erratic driving and nearly ditching our cars upon spying a breathtaking boat for sale on the hard. Boat Lust was simply lust. It was swooning, sighing, and feeling flushed with passion, just over an inanimate object: a boat.

The second thing that set me pondering on Boat Lust and about chasing passions is the fact that I’ve somehow convinced award-winning author, Pam Houston, to teach a writing class on a windjamming schooner, the Isaac H. Evans, which is run by my friend, Brenda Thomas. This crazy little adventure of pulling together a floating writing event has gotten me thinking about some of the people I admire the most and why they stir passion for me. Those who have this impact nearly always turn out to be those who manage to pull their own disparate passions together to make art, music, houses, history, boats, or any old odd creation—and frequently these folks make for themselves a tantalizingly original life.

While it seems near impossible to convey the texture, the storms and urges of our passions, and transmit the why of our batty obsessions in ways the uninitiated can understand, because as Pam Houston says, we are stuck with “the failure of language to mean,” I find myself thinking about a Kerouac quote mentioned at AWP last month. It goes, “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" I think Kerouac’s right; when we connect with those who share our daft obsessions, we connect with that which burns most brightly in them—and in us. We recognize our own ineffable spark.

And so it is that I am drawn, not only to boats and all they promise, but to the people who sparkle and glimmer and break free from the mundane and ordinary as often as they can. My friend, Brenda, who’s the captain of the Isaac H. Evans signed the bank papers and bought her 99-foot, 1886 schooner before she even had her captain’s license. Crazy, brave, and seemingly fearless, she remains a hero for me. Not to mention, she’s now doing it all with two kids. My buddy, Daniel, eventually found that boat that was just right for him: Plumbelly—a boat made by another dreamer, a German man, who built the boat by hand on a beach on the Caribbean island of Bequia. Daniel sailed Plumbelly across oceans for years, and now, he has yet another boat, Bufflehead, and he’s running a charter business out of Rockland, ME—right down from where Brenda runs the Evans. About a year ago, I met Tele Aadsen, an Alaskan gal who now spends half her time commercial fishing for salmon and half her time writing. She’s at work on her first book now. It’s called Hooked. The subtitle of her blog says, “one woman at sea, trolling for truth.” These are just some of the souls I feel drawn to, and I believe it’s precisely because they’ve been passionate about things that didn’t make pure, logical sense.

The year after Brian and I started dating, he called me from Florida, where he grew up and where he was visiting his mother.

“I’m down at the marina,” he said into the phone, “looking at boats.”

“You don’t say,” I said, smiling.

Brian had been slow to warm to my little sloop, Shady Lady. He initially thought sailing was something people did just to keep antiquated expertise and nautical history alive in the manner of Civil War reenactments. But, I’d given Brian a couple of books about young sailors who had gone off to sail around the world, and eventually, he warmed to the whole idea. As a student of physics, he became intrigued with the science of sailing, and when he grasped the potential of long-range voyaging by boat, he was awed. But it was the day he called me, trolling boat yards that I knew.

“You’re hooked now, darling,” I said.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Books, Boats, and Gutsy Gals

Nantucket shingle gray. Seagull gray. Pelican gray. I can see them all from where I sit; it’s Seattle in February, and I’m dreaming of the sea. I’m looking over Lake Union. The view is great—even if monochromatic. A few sailboats were out for the Goosebumps Race, but they’ve probably abandoned the damp and dreary for a booth at Ivar’s. The call of chowder, beer, and happy hour was usually plenty to tempt us off the Shady Lady—even at a hint of gray and skies barely sprinkling. 

From this vantage overlooking the lake, I’ve been hibernating. Taken out over the holidays with illness, it’s taken me a while to get excited about emerging. But even as the wind picks up and the spray hits the slider with percussive force, I’m excited. We’re on the upside of the winter solstice; official sunset in Seattle is now 5:34, and by the end of next month, we won’t lose daylight until 7:38. That’s a lot more day, and by then all of Seattle, especially the UW cherry trees, will be in full bloom.

And beyond buds, blossoms, and prolonged daylight hours, I’m excited about something else: a bit of serendipity. Today, I was thrilled to announce that an exciting bit of coincidence has turned into a writing event where Pam Houston, the writer, who back in May, I was somewhat awe-struck to meet at a writing workshop in Port Townsend, will be teaching a class on the Schooner Isaac H. Evans, an 1886 schooner—owned and operated by my friend, Captain Brenda Thomas.

But there’s a story here that Pam hasn’t even heard that makes this connection even sweeter. In 1997, I turned 30. I was living in Camden, ME and was pretty lonely and down—trying to right myself after the end of a three-year romance. To help me out of my funk, I signed up for a writing group, where I met Brenda. Brenda wasn’t Captain yet, but was already working on the Evans. We hit it off. I’d bought myself a guitar, and since Brenda was learning too, she came to my apartment, so we could fumble around and try to teach each other chords and whatever else we’d learned.

After about a year in Camden, I left the state of Maine and went to graduate school—eventually migrating to the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, Brenda and I kept in touch sporadically, and I remember being both proud and awed when she bought the Isaac Evans, got her captain’s license, and started taking passengers out along the coast—in that order! She hadn’t yet sat for her captain’s license when she actually purchased the boat. Talk about gutsy!

About a dozen years after Brenda and I met, I found myself back in Camden. I hadn’t seen Brenda in all those years, but had Pam Houston’s book, Sight Hound with me, and I thought Brenda would like it. So, I stopped off at the schooner one evening when she was boarding passengers to give her the book. She later told me how much she enjoyed it. It’s the only book I ever gave Brenda, and it was long before I ever met Pam Houston. But it seems fitting now that Brenda and I met in a writing group and that Pam’s book made its connection with Brenda long before this exciting event called Writing on a Windjammer was ever conceived.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On Meeting Pam Houston

When I read the first line of Pam Houston’s debut book of short stories many years ago, she had me with “When he says ‘Skins or blankets?’ it will take you a moment to realize that he’s asking which you want to sleep under.” The next line is equally intoxicating, and that was it—literary lust at first sight. I already lived in a world of snow and rustic cabins and whitewater weekends and crusty rural characters. I wanted to know more about this world of Pam Houston’s—this western, rugged world—that wasn’t just like my state-of-Maine world—but felt like it might be a close cousin. So I read Houston’s book, Cowboys are my Weakness, again and again. I bought additional copies and gave them to gal friends. And though my life and Houston’s had little but a love of wild outdoor spaces in common, she seemed like the female friend I wished I had on days when it felt like I worked only with men.

When Houston’s other books (Sighthound and Waltzing the Cat) came out, I eagerly bought and read them. Again I gave copies to gal friends as gifts. And eventually I urged my boyfriend to read some of her essays in A Little More About Me. For years, I almost always had one of her books close at hand. But I started reading Pam Houston’s books back before I even owned a computer and long before facebook and twitter would enable me to keep me up with favorite author readings and classes. So despite being a huge fan of her work, I never imagined I’d get to take an actual, in-person writing class with Pam Houston. That is until recently when I learned—via electronic media—that Pam would be teaching a class in Port Townsend, WA. I signed up almost immediately and then eagerly anticipated the one-day class that would take place in one of my very favorite towns.

The day before the class, Brian and I sat on the deck at Sirens. The weather was magnificent. The Pacific Northwest has seen August days that couldn’t rival this balmy and brilliant one in late March, so as we drank Bloody Marys and beers and ate nachos and watched seagulls cavort and copulate and monitored the fog receding and advancing and the ferry coming and going and argued over whether or not the island we could see was or was not Marrowstone, I scanned the crowd, knowing that in a fanfare-free town like Port Townsend, your favorite writer could be sitting right behind you.

The next morning, our class assembled in an upstairs room in one of the old buildings just a few blocks from the hotel where Brian and I had just stayed. I selected a seat right up front by the open windows, deciding I might as well sit where I’d be able to see and hear everything. And despite the slightly nervous anticipatory energy that goes along with seeing a literary hero in an up-close and personal way, Pam’s arrival was almost shockingly casual. I think she actually wandered in before the event coordinator had a chance to introduce her, and in the first few moments, Pam Houston put to rest any notions that this would be a class constrained by formality.

Pam comes off as a truly down-to-earth human: so literally down to earth that she told us early in the day that sitting in her chicken house on Christmas Eve with the temp at 30 below—amid the chickens and the shit—was really all about being 50. In everything she says, she is refreshingly direct. She has a clear voice—the kind that carries, the kind you expect in a theater actor. And she has a quick and attentive mind. During class, she would sometimes appear so calm, almost meditative. One might have incorrectly assumed she was drifting off and thinking about other things, but then, she’d say something that made it clear she hadn’t missed a syllable. We might have, but she hadn’t. She heard it all, and occasionally, she’d make a little joke or humorous quip that revealed her excellent wit. She is no nonsense, so in minutes, we got to work, and she was talking to us about how hard it can be to write—how the fear of boring the reader can be paralyzing. And she talked to us about her strategies for getting past feeling that abandoning the blank page altogether—in favor of a hike—might be preferable to writing utter crap.

She talked to us about what she calls glimmers—those little bits of observation that take hold of our attention, the things that shimmer and shine at us and stand out above the monotony that can paint our days with haze. She explained that this is where she always starts. She begins with the concrete details that niggle her senses—the things she is certain mean something even if she doesn’t know what.

Soon we were writing in-class assignments and then trying to be courageous enough to read them aloud. I tried to follow her instructions and just write the scene—not interpret it, and it worked. When I read my scene in class, Pam made it clear that she understood more about my brief scene than I did. It wasn’t magic, really. I guess it was just the fact that we give away more than we imagine through the details we choose, and readers understand more than we give them credit for comprehending.

I was actually shocked when I read my piece, and Pam said she could feel the rage. I explained that the glimmer I had chosen to write about was in fact a prelude to a fight that Brian and I had had the night before. Pam said, "You don't need to tell me. I can tell."

Here's what I wrote: 

We’re in the soaking tub, and the water is very hot—a notch below scalding. I think it is a good thing we’re not large people, and I explain to Brian that I didn’t overfill the tub because I didn’t want the water to cascade right over the top once we both got in. We talk, and he tells me that he and Moriel talked about my writing when they went hiking the other day—about the fact that I’m trying to write, and yet I’ve lived a rather trauma-free life. It’s something I’ve been wondering about. Where does my conflict come in? I ask Brian what they discussed, and he says, “Well, you could always just write fiction.” And then he suggests that I could write about the time one of my colleagues on ski patrol was killed—horribly—in a ski accident. He thinks I can write about this; he thinks there is enough conflict.

A lighter in-class writing assignments resulted in me writing the following about the most embarrassing thing that happened that day:

I’m sitting in an upstairs room in Port Townsend, and the tease of mild air is pouring in through the open window. Pam Houston’s strong voice is filling the room, and all of a sudden, she pauses, perhaps says something, and then the whole room is looking first at the door, and then at me, as Brian holds up the little metal room key—just like the one I forgot to fish out of my purse and return before walking over to this class. Pam continues her talk, and I start rooting around in my purse. I slid the little—possibly brass—key and disc with the room number on it into the purse yesterday when we headed out from the room, and now I know that it has migrated to the bottom. I feel around, groping past the tampons, the lip balm, and the iPhone charger, but it’s hopeless. I grab my purse and sneak my way out to the hall where I try to be quiet. I grab handfuls of purse contents—little green gloves, more tampons, cables, change purse and checkbook, along with unorganized receipts—and I dump them all on the floor. Brian sees the little bronze disc with 17 on it—for our room last night—and he plucks it from the mess. I scoop all my purse crap back into the leather bag with the crumbling strap and try to quietly get back to my seat after giving Brian a “thanks and have a nice day” kiss.

I didn’t read that little glimmer of humiliation aloud in class. I could, however, have listened to Pam for days. I left thinking that I’d like everyday to be as much fun as this one had been—despite the fact that we’d been indoors all day as the sun shone warmly again on Port Townsend.

Happily, I’ll get to hear more from Pam, as I’ve signed up for two additional workshops with her in October, and she’ll be at another writing event I’ll be attending in July. In the meantime, I’m rereading my notes from her class, trying to remember her advice, trying to understand her techniques, and of course, reading and rereading her work. What can I say? Between Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston, I’m a bit of an addict—or groupie—I’m not sure.

Any other huge Pam Houston fans out there? Have you taken a class with her? Read her books?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Meeting Cheryl Strayed

When I was a kid, I didn’t have many celebrity heroes. I never wrote to any rock stars or signed up for any fan clubs. I never even hung heartthrob posters featuring tanned abs or feathered hair on the walls of my bedroom. I read some Teen and Tiger Beat magazines, and I once thought Andy Gibb was something special—but throughout my life, celebrity fascinations have been both minor and fleeting.

With few exceptions, even sports heroes were only marginally more prominent than celebrities and heartthrobs in my life. My family didn’t attend professional baseball, football, basketball, or hockey games, so I find it curious that I owned a small autograph book with a yellow cover and multicolored pages. I have no idea how I came to own the little rectangular book with the word AUTOGRAPHS on the cover in all-capital, gold-embossed lettering; though, I’m nearly certain that the first and only time it ever got used was when the Waterville Valley Resort hosted a World Cup ski race.

I suppose I grew up in a family that was a bit more focused on doing than on spectating, and from the first, ours was a family that skied. My dad had been obsessed with skiing ever since he taught himself to ski as a teenager at a local hill, and skiing, it turns out, was a big part of my parent’s courtship. When I came along, my parents even named me after a little girl they had seen skiing before I was born. This other little girl had been skiing at a very early age, and I was meant to be just like her. Thanks to my parent’s slight obsession, I may have even beaten her; I was on skis at age one.

So by the time the World Cup came to Waterville Valley, I was a junior ski racer, and Waterville was our home mountain. I’m not sure exactly when we learned that the World Cup race would be coming to Waterville, but it was a Sunday night when my sisters and I pitched a huge fit, begging to skip school on Monday to watch the races. We were sure that seeing a World Cup ski race in person was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and we claimed that it was tantamount to child cruelty for mom and dad to deny us this opportunity—especially since they were the ones who had gotten us into skiing. But despite our histrionics, my parents proceeded to pack the car and drive us back home to Massachusetts—intent on sending us to school.

That night around nine o’clock—after the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Mass—my friend, Anna-Britt Coe, called to tell me that her family was keeping her out of school on Monday to watch the World Cup, and her parents wanted to know if we’d be at the mountain as well. Thanks to Anna-Britt’s family, my parents reconsidered. We then loaded the car back up, and the next morning, Anna-Britt, her family, my parents, my sisters, and I were all at the mountain before it even opened, ready to watch the best ski racers in the world compete.

Somehow, I’d remembered to take my little yellow autograph book; though, I can’t remember how I carried it with me as I skied. I must have had a big enough pocket because I know I had it the morning of the first race when we encountered our first two World Cup skiers in the small lodge at the top of the mountain. It was so early that hardly anyone was in the lodge. My two ski-racer targets were eating breakfast when I asked them if they would sign my autograph book. They did—though they looked somewhat surprised when I asked. They weren’t the biggest-name skiers of the day, and at the time, I didn’t know a thing about them—not even their names. I only recognized them as World Cup ski racers because they were wearing their race gear. Today I’m almost sure that one of them was a former U.S. racer named Dave Stapleton, who’s now a ski adventure guide. I think the other was a guy named Pete—perhaps Peter Dodge—who along with Stapleton became a U.S. pro racer after his World Cup days. It’s strange that after not thinking about any of this for decades, I can still vaguely see the script letters in my mind from their signatures. Of course, at the time, it didn’t really matter who they were; they were ski racers—World Cup ski racers—and that was all that mattered.     

As the day went on, getting autographs became our quest, so Anna-Britt, my sisters, and I would hunt down ski racers in the lodge and ask them to sign my book. Phil and Steve Mahre, the ski racing twins from Yakima, Washington, were two of the top skiers at the time and were definitely the leading U.S. racers. Both were friendly and courteous when we asked for their autographs, but the other top racer—Ingemar Stenmark—just growled and waved us away. We hadn’t paid attention to the leaderboard, and apparently, Stenmark’s first run had not gone well. Anna-Britt and I reported to our parents that Ingemar had been grumpy with us. So, since Ingemar Stenmark was Swedish, as was Anna-Britt and her family, her mother returned with us and asked Ingemar very nicely in Swedish if he would indulge us kids with an autograph. The friendly request in his native language did the trick, so we walked away with yet another trophy signature.

The autograph thing was funny. I somehow knew that I was supposed to collect these autographs in my autograph book, as this was the objective. But I didn’t really know why or what it was supposed to mean to have these autographs once I’d collected them.

Years later, I would be ski coaching in Zermatt, Switzerland, when Pirmin Zurbriggen, the dominant racer of the day, would ski past my students and me leaving a perfect, deep, round arc in the corn snow beside us. The kids all reached out to touch the arc he left in the snow—as if his power, talent, and brilliance as a skier were transferrable, as if all we had to do was touch the arc left in the snow as he whizzed by, and we would be elevated somehow.

When I think back on how we choose our heroes and who we decide to admire, I’m somewhat pleased that I seem to have always gravitated towards valuing people for the amazing things they do and less for the way they look, which probably explains the lack of teen idol posters in my childhood. But I still wonder a bit about exactly what it is we hope to gain when we do meet those we most admire.

I’ve had a little bit of time to think about this since Saturday morning when I turned to see my newest literary hero, Cheryl Strayed, standing less than three feet from me. Getting to hear Cheryl Strayed deliver the keynote address at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat this past weekend at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, Washington had been a huge motivation for attending the event. I’ve read all three of Strayed’s books—twice. And her bold, powerful prose won me over from the first page. She is a smart, strong, seemingly fearless woman who writes with a candor and compassion that seems capable of disarming even the most jaded reader. And for these reasons, it seemed as if all of the attendees at the writing retreat—including me—were like giddy teens awaiting her arrival.

On Saturday morning, I was honestly shocked when I turned to my left and saw Cheryl—less than an arms length from me—looking for the start of the breakfast line. When she turned slightly in my direction, I said, “Cheryl, I’m a huge fan of your work.” She extended her hand and introduced herself, and I thought, “Oh, right, you’re supposed to introduce yourself before you start gushing.” Cheryl worried aloud that she was in the wrong place, and I was thrilled to inform her that she was in exactly the right place and that a man behind the counter would soon hand her a plate. She asked me about which class I was taking, and I explained that we were able to take up to five classes from the retreat’s writing instructors. She asked me another question about the event, and I said that the retreat was wonderful. I may have said that the food was excellent, but I don’t really remember. Then Cheryl started ordering her food from the buffet, and I saw Theo, the event’s organizer, walking up to greet her, so I left Theo to do the official welcoming and I wandered back to my seat thinking, “I can’t believe I just talked to Cheryl Strayed.”

Of course there is absolutely nothing in all that I’ve read that could possibly have led me to think that Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things, would have been anything other than a real, live, flesh-and-blood person—and an easy-going, warm, and courteous one at that. So, what was it that made actually meeting her, talking with her, standing right next to her seem like such a special gift? What made me so attracted to seeing her and to hearing her speak in person? And how was this attraction similar to how I’d chased after all of those famous—and in some cases not so famous—ski racers all those years ago, pleading for their autographs? And what made standing in her presence feel like touching the arc in the snow carved by Pirmin Zurbriggen? In what way is Cheryl Strayed’s brilliance transferrable?

Later that afternoon, I was walking back into the dining room, and Cheryl and Theo were walking out. Cheryl looked at me and said, “Hi. You spoke with me this morning, didn’t you?” Once again, I couldn’t believe that Cheryl was talking to me. I said, “Yes,” and apologized for accosting her in the morning. She said, “You didn’t accost me,” and I explained that I’d worried about having interrupted her by gushing and chatting her up before she’d even had a chance to have her morning coffee. But she assured me that she was accustomed to interruptions. “I have kids,” she said and indicated that she hadn’t been bothered at all by my interaction. Once again, I walked away with a warm feeling—something akin to having good news to share.

Cheryl’s keynote address was brilliant, and even if I hadn’t had three separate opportunities to talk with her, her discussion on writing would have had a supremely positive impact on my thinking about both writing and about life. She had sensational, grounded, earnest, and caring advice for us, and I hope that Theo will be able to make the video of Cheryl’s talk available to us; I’d love to review her wise words again and again.   

But still I ask myself, what was it about actually being there, about meeting her, about being in her presence? Could I not have learned the same lessons had I seen a video of her talk? What was that warm glow we all took away with us?  What did I, what did any of us, touch of Cheryl Strayed’s brilliance? What was transferred?

I suppose it’s unlikely that there really is any alchemy in proximity, but I can say that Cheryl’s presence, her poise and her caring, reinforced my belief in graciousness. With everyone fawning and grasping and trying to touch the magic that Cheryl—through her hard work, her tenacity, and her faith in herself—has created—she was supremely gracious. She lived her own words; she held us all in high regard. She was generous with her time, her energy, her leadership, and her patience for all of us seeking an autograph—and to know something of her—this exceptional woman who has defied conventional wisdom through her achievements.

That evening, during the book signing, I asked Cheryl to sign two books for me: one for a 62-year-old friend who hiked the Appalachian Trail last summer and one for my partner, Brian. I recognized that I didn’t need Cheryl’s autograph for myself. I have her words on the page, the advice from her keynote, and the example of her presence. I also have Theo’s introduction of Cheryl in which she stated that one of the most remarkable things about Cheryl Strayed was that she behaved like a wildly successful author even before she was one, working to build strong writing communities and to support other writers long before her own first book was ever published. These sorts of activities—helping to build the writing community in my own area and working to support other authors—these are tangible things I can do immediately. Whether or not I will ever write in a way that touches people as Cheryl Strayed does, I can’t say. How my writing evolves and improves depends on me doing the work—day after day. But being a good member of my community, being gracious, and being thankful for the opportunities I have—all of that I can do now. And I can be humbly grateful for the tremendous good fortune of being able to spend a couple of days in an exquisite location with interesting, inspiring, and like-minded people. And I can follow Cheryl’s example and act like the person I want to be, and I can do that today.   

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wakulla County Swamp Running – Mini Adventure #1

If you’d told me, even just a few short months ago, that I’d find myself out running in a Florida swamp, I might theoretically have threatened to feed you to an alligator. I also might have assumed that you were professing some dark form of clairvoyance and were alluding to my imminent demise. You see, before moving to Wakulla County, Florida—gators, swamps, snakes, sand gnats, yellow flies, cockroaches, and locusts were, to my mind, the stuff of horror movies—not creatures with which I ever expected to come into contact.

Of course, several years ago, when my partner, Brian, and I were still living in Seattle, he would sometimes travel back to this—his—part of Northern Florida to visit his mother and the rest of his kin, as he liked to say. During his visits, he’d call me daily to tell me about seeing fish jump and porpoises crest the water’s surface on the bay. He’d also call me to describe spectacular sunsets and the sounds of the frogs at night. He especially loved to call from his neighbor’s dock or from his mom’s deck, where he’d be hanging out either fully naked or in just a sarong. He’d typically call from the dock late at night to tell me about the stars, the solitude, the warm winds, and about listening to the whippoorwills. In these phone calls, I can now see that what he was trying to do was woo me with the wonders of Wakulla.

But, he also used to call to tell me about some of his other exploits in the area—and while his more adventurous tales were probably meant, on some level, to impress me—instead they left me feeling smugly safe and secure in my humble little home back in Seattle. His first memorable tale was of the time he went running along the dikes in the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge and nearly ran up on an alligator. The gator appeared to him as a pure inky-black smudge, and what Brian said initially just looked like mud eventually revealed itself to be the shoulder of an enormous alligator. By the time Brian realized that the tire rut he was approaching was more gator than mud, he also realized that there was likely no reasonable way around the beast. So, he turned tail and trotted back the way he’d come.

His second scary story was about a time when, while trying to outrun mosquitoes, gnats, and yellow flies in a swamp near his mother’s house, he ran up on a pack of wild boar, two of which boasted big tusks. Brian was full of amazement, excitement, and energy as he relayed this extraordinary encounter, and he explained recalling the notion that you’re supposed to make yourself look big and tall to scare certain wild animals away. The big, tall, scary-deep-voice act turned out to be a tactic that did, in fact, work for him, somehow convincing the family of wild boar to turn and amble back off into the brush. Warm and snug in my own bedroom in Seattle, I just kept wondering why the hell the boy couldn’t find someplace other than a swamp to go running.   

After we moved to Wakulla, Brian worked hard to introduce me to the whole kaleidoscope of weird and wondrous experiences that could be had here. The dolphins and porpoises on the bay were an easy first step, and they delighted almost daily. We could often step out onto the deck, sip our coffee, and watch the cetaceans slip by. On lazy afternoons, the mullet were perhaps even more entertaining, throwing themselves fully out of the water, headlong in the direction of some new patch of river a “fish-yard” or so towards what I imagined must be a fish goalpost somewhere up or down river. The pelicans also never failed to amuse and impress as they flew in bomber-style formations back and forth overhead. I also became and remained perpetually intrigued by the noisy Bonaparte gulls, the talented diving terns, the occasional migrating loons, and even the somewhat unsightly anhinga, and over the course of my first summer, I even saw sharks, manatees, and stingrays—all right outside Brian’s mom’s cottage, where we still live.

And as Wakulla migrated from merely warm when we arrived in February to generally steamy and then started heading straight towards stifling, Brian and his cousin, David, coerced me into going out on the Sopchoppy River at night to fish for catfish. After swearing that there was no way I would join them, I had to admit—after finally relenting—that it was a much lovelier experience than I could have imagined. The river at night wasn’t what a Yankee like me could describe as cool, but it had a soft, pleasant feel, and to the best of my knowledge, nothing actually bit me while we were out there tending the cat lines.

Later in the summer, I even surprised myself by remaining shockingly calm while watching a rat snake emerge from some shrubbery in the front yard. Brian and I stared for what seemed like an eternity until all six or eight or ten feet of the damn thing stretched across the grass and slipped off into the woods to the east of the house. Brian and I both spent some time reminding and reassuring me that the only things rat snakes really want to eat are rats, which, provided that the snake remained off in the shrubbery, actually seemed like a pretty fair deal to me.

As the furnace-like conditions of mid-summer finally arrived—Brian and I continued to explore Wakulla County, and we soon discovered even more fascinating facts about our surroundings. We learned that what Brian had always referred to as Whippoorwills were actually Chuck-wills-widows, which have a beautifully distinctive and repetitive call with a rhythm that matches their name.

We also grew accustomed to hearing the nightly commotion that was the frogs in the swamp. While Brian had tried to tell me about the sound of the frogs many times, until I heard it for myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. From the open door of the cottage at night, the frogs were loud, and many evenings, the frenetic frog performance would be the loudest thing we could hear. Brian would notice them starting in towards dusk, and then, as if encouraging me to attend a neighborhood concert or a block party, he’d enthusiastically say, “Come on, let’s walk down to the swamp and listen”? It took numerous requests before I’d go, and I only went then because he assured me that he didn’t actually mean wading around in a swamp but merely standing on the edge of a road next to the swamp. When we finally did wander down the mostly still road in the sultry summer air, the symphony of frog noise was shocking. How many were there? Hundreds? Thousands?

There were clearly different types of frogs in there—each one contributing their specific call to the composition and crescendo. Brian noted the bullfrogs, which hit the deepest notes, sounding like a cross between a bassoon and a didgeridoo. Then there were the crazy, alien-sounding frogs that may have been squirrel tree frogs or southern spring peepers or even ornate chorus frogs. I still don’t know, though I started looking them up as soon as we got home. One of the most interesting things was that the chirps and squawks being made by the the sopranos, tenors, and baritones would all start slowly—calling and responding, repeating and insisting until the whole thing became a roiling summer evening concerto, and then, as if cut off by the wave of a conductor’s baton, the voices would cease—simultaneously—and silence would take its turn. And then after several moments of calm, quiet, stillness—never knowing what it was that made them stop or start—we’d hear—perhaps one lone bullfrog call dark and low, and then the chorus of little space-alien frogs would start in—sounding something like an old spring bed repeatedly creaking up and down—and then the rest of the amphibious instruments would come in, the sound of a North Florida summer evening building again and again.

All of which brings me back to running in the swamp—something that, despite my ever-increasing affinity for the wonders and the wildlife of Wakulla, I thought I’d never do. But I’ve noticed that never is a long time, and whenever I say never, time usually makes a liar out of me, so my progression towards running in the swamp all started when, several weeks back, Brian told me that he was engaging in a get-back-into-shape-intelligently fitness program. I’d never taken such a common sense approach to getting in shape, but I decided his plan had merit.

Brian then explained that while I’d been away over the holidays, he’d started executing this new fitness regime by going out running and walking in the wildlife refuge on trails that ran between a series of little lakes and swamps. He assured me that here in the depths of winter, the bugs would be few to non-existent and that running along the refuge trails was in fact very pleasant. So, after all of my reluctance, I decided to give it a try. And—as with nearly everything else I’ve discovered here—I wasn’t just pleased, I very quickly became enchanted.

On our first excursion, we drove down Surf Road towards Sopchoppy and pulled off the road across from the newly paved bike path alongside a small wire gate, preventing cars from actually driving into the refuge. As part of our intelligent, get-back-into-shape fitness program, we had decided to alternate between walking and running, and so we started with a nice five-minute walking warm up. Just moments into our first walking segment on the sandy trail, which was littered with long brown pine needles and enormous pine cones, I noticed that the warm, low-angle winter light seemed to bath the whole landscape in deep reds and golds. I also noticed that the broad expanses of Long Leaf and Slash or Swamp Pines made me think of pictures I’d seen of the African savannah. These tall pines hold nearly all of their branches and leaves up high—allowing the eye long views and letting the sun light all of the wiregrass and palmettos below.

We ran along the trails between the small lakes and swamps on several occasions before actually seeing an alligator, and when we finally did see the gator, it was only because a Dad and his son, who’d been out biking, pointed it out to us. The gator was lounging, partially submerged, in a tiny, thick little swamp area just off the side of the road.

We didn’t have much trouble with bugs, and we didn’t see any wild boar. We saw no snakes and no buzzards and nothing else off of my critters-that-make-me-squeamish list. We did see formations of geese and ducks that flew so closely overhead that we could hear the beating of their wings moving the air, and we watched as the slowly setting sun turned all of the tree trunks to a rosy umber against the pale blue sky.

What have I learned from this little mini adventure? Running in the wilderness of the wildlife refuge past small lakes and swamps has not been the scary, horror movie experience I immediately conjured in my mind when Brian first mentioned it. Instead, it has been a magical little adventure that has sent me, full of curiosity, rushing to my computer to look up the names of trees, shrubs, and grasses. It has made me want to return to the refuge with a really good camera to take pictures that—were I a good enough photographer—could grace the pages of National Geographic. It has taught me that I should push myself harder to get past little fears—especially those that arise from simply being in an unfamiliar backyard. It has also taught me that mini adventures can be found anywhere, if we only take the time and make the effort to discover them.

Have you ever had an experience (a mini adventure or a true epic) that first required that you get past some sort of fear? 

Popular Posts